19 Editorial_opt

Sexual assault on campus is endemic – so why are we ignoring it?

Content warning: Sexual assault, violence, harassment, misogyny.

Sexual assault is rife on campus – and we are failing to discuss it. As a student I have watched the short, middle and long-term ramifications of sexual assault unfold, sending shock waves through a person’s life, in the full knowledge that I cannot understand and that any help I can provide is severely limited. This experience is far from a rarity amongst students.

A close friend of mine, who graduated from Bournemouth University last year, reminded me recently that in her first year she shared a flat with no less than three girls who had been raped.

Another friend told me of their horror at hearing that someone with whom they went to school has recently been convicted of the rape of an unconscious woman outside a party.

A third friend, Francesca Trampleasure, studied sexual harassment experienced by female students at the University of Bath for their final year dissertation and reported in her findings that 47.33 per cent of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment as a student.

As I move towards graduation, I am deeply saddened at the bleak picture that my university experiences regarding violence towards women have afforded me. I have struggled with approaching this topic, worrying that it is not my place to comment. But ultimately, I realize that such a reticent attitude only serves to strengthen the cycle of violence, encouraging a silence that permeates our society’s attitude to crimes of a sexual nature.

The truth is that sexual assault is more than just prevalent on UK campuses. And for those that have suffered such abuse there is rarely professional support in terms of sufficient trauma counseling or criminalization of the perpetrator.

Leaving the legal shortcomings aside, we need to focus on what our university can do to combat this endemic problem – and it is endemic. The NUS reported last October that 17 per cent of respondents to a survey had suffered sexual harassment in their first week at university.

To put the proportion into perspective, that would amount to almost 1,000 first-year students at the University of Edinburgh experiencing sexual harassment out of  an incoming group of 5,000.

In January, The Student reported that rape crisis centres in England and Wales receive over 3,000 calls a week. The Telegraph reported in January 2015 that a third of female students in Britain have endured some form of sexual assault whilst at university. The Tab reported last November that there were 87 incidents of assault in the Meadows between April 2010 and September 2015.

This last statistic includes the horrific sexual attack in November 2014 on a nineteen-year-old girl at Jawbone Walk. The Meadows has long had a reputation for being unsafe for women and community support officers were placed there throughout the night in the months following the attack. Yet such measures seem to have been discontinued despite the ongoing need of many students walking alone in the Meadows for these additional safety measures.

The scope of this problem is terrifying, but it strikes me that discussion and education are certainly a must. It is natural to address individual cases, as many of us are emotionally connected with them, but until we join the dots and recognize the problem for what it is—widespread and national—and until we start discussing it as such, we cannot tackle it.

We have a collective term for acts that sexually violate victims and a way of life that normalizes it – rape culture – but the truth is that this is being denied, and not just by extremists.

Earlier this academic year a student at Warwick University forcefully rejected proposals to have consent classes, brandishing a sign emblazoned with the words ‘this is not what a rapist looks like’ in a Tab article that went viral. This is  not only an ignorant position, but also a dangerous one; distancing oneself on the grounds of not being a perpetrator makes it very easy to dismiss the problem entirely.

Shirking our responsibility to talk about this only makes us culpable by neglect and strengthens the already powerful silence that surrounds sexual assault. It is time that we stop expecting the victims of sexual assault to do the all the talking about something that has, in many cases, been hugely traumatic.

Every student on campus needs to be encouraged to accept, confront and discuss rape culture if we hope to break this cycle of denial, excuses and violence. Only with such a commitment made by the University and by EUSA can I remain hopeful that the incoming wave of Freshers will not share the experiences of myself and many of my peers.

Image: Flickr: allykate78

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