A recent survey has revealed Rape Crisis centres in England and Wales received over 3,000 weekly calls on average, as reported experiences of sexual assault at university are on the rise.
The results show that reports of rape came from both male and female students, with about a third of British female students experiencing sexual harassment in university environments. In addition, half of all female students, and a third of males expressed knowing a friend or relative who had been affected by sexual assault.
The survey was conducted by The Telegraph from March 2014 to March 2015.
Unwelcome sexual advances, in the form of inappropriate touching and groping, is a major problem on many UK campuses. As reported by the NUS, it affected 26 per cent of university students back in 2014. According to a report published by EUSA in the same year, almost a third of students reported that they had been subjected to sexual harassment. Rape Crisis Scotland also stated that there had been a 23 per cent increase in reported cases of rape since 2013.
In a statement to The Student, Urte Macikene, EUSA Vice President Services said: “Behaviour which constitutes sexual harassment is not always intentional or malicious, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful. Examples include catcalling, making sexualised comments about people’s appearance or sexuality, or joking about their sex life or appearance”.
Referring to the Sexual Offences Scotland Act 2009, Professor Sharon Cowan, a teacher of Criminal Law at the University of Edinburgh, told The Student that the definition of consent should entail “free agreement, and that a person can withdraw consent at any time.
She continued: “They should know that consent to sexual activity is fundamentally important, and that checking to make sure that the other person is capable of consenting (i.e. not too drunk) and that they are really consenting, is the only way to ensure there is mutual agreement to whatever is going on.
“The double challenge for us as a society is to empower people to say no to sex that they don’t want, and to encourage people to keep checking and be aware of how their sexual partner is feeling, and whether they want to engage in – and continue with – sex.”
Cowan also commented on the significance in the high number of men who had come forward to report sexual violence, saying: “This is definitely a change from years gone by as men have grown in confidence that they can report incidents to the police and they will be treated seriously”.
The University of Edinburgh has employed efforts recently to increase support services and raise awareness on the issue, with a campus-wide campaign encouraging people to call out inappropriate jokes or behaviour. “At EUSA, all of our staff are trained to respond to sexual harassment complaints, and we have a strict zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment. Anyone making others feel uncomfortable in our venues will be immediately asked to leave,” Macikene told The Student.
Furthermore, the Student Counselling Service is available to provide free confidential counselling to all students of the University. “Counsellors won’t force someone to talk about something they are not ready to do so, a University spokesperson told The Student. “Students in crisis are seen very quickly and can access links in Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre”
Despite the efforts, Professor Cowan suggests there can be more done to eradicate the culture that allows and often undermines the seriousness of harassment. She told The Student: “the challenge for the university is to ensure that there is not a culture amongst certain groups of (particularly male) students, as has been reported in recent years, that rape is tolerated or celebrated (e.g. by the rugby club, or during Freshers’ week, or by the ‘Alpha Sigma’ ‘frat’ group) or dismissed as trivial.”
However many members of the student community feel the university can still do more for supporting victims of sexual harassment.
Marie Larsson, member of the Equalise campaign group, told The Student: “The university needs to be loudly and more frequently saying that there are services that students can use as well as how to access them, it is not acceptable to only provide a list of websites and service providers – like I was given at the start of my first year – and for them to think that this is enough: it is not”.
Equalise is responsible for hosting its second annual week-long event series aimed at raising awareness and fundraising to support the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre. The events will take place this year from January 30 to February 5.
Larsson told The Student: “We also hope to encourage people to start thinking and talking about consent and sexual violence with friends, flatmates, course-mates, etc. This is how we think we can make a contribution to dealing with gender-based violence.
“I think that many people are unaware of what consent is and how to make sure you have it and I feel like there is a disconnect between what people see as consent from others and what they feel when reflecting on their own comfort and consent.
“This is clearly an enormous problem.”
Image credit: Flickr: David Tan