In October of last year, Warwick University student George Lawlor divided opinion on how sexual assault should be dealt with on campus by refusing to attend a class on sexual consent. Publishing a blog post online entitled, ‘Why I Don’t Need Consent Lessons’, Lawlor wrote that he found the invitation to the event ’a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face’ and argued ‘I don’t have to be taught to not be a rapist’. While some praised his actions, declaring that they stand up for gender-based assumptions and anti-male sentiment, others condemned Lawlor’s behaviour as naive and even dangerous. For example, in an editorial of April this year, previous Student editor-in-chief Fiona Grew likened this attitude to shirking responsibility for sexual assault, suggesting that “distancing oneself on the grounds of not being a perpetrator makes it very easy to dismiss the problem entirely”.
A new survey by charity Drinkaware and website UniLad found that one third of university students have been sexually harassed on a night out, and with Fresher’s Week fast approaching it’s ever more important to tackle the issue of sexual assault around campus. A combination of unfamiliar surroundings and unfamiliar faces has the potential to go horribly wrong – a chief officer at Coventry rape and sexual abuse centre recalls a police officer describing Fresher’s Week as a ‘killing fields’ for sexual violence. Meanwhile, a recent court case heard allegations of sexual assault during Fresher’s Week at St Mary’s University Twickenham in 2014, with then-student William Harrison accused of sexually harassing two women within minutes of each other.
Perhaps one of the most unnerving aspects of this case is the fact that the assault occurred in official halls of residence, on university property. Should universities be doing more to avoid sexual assault? In 2015, a Drinkaware poll showed that 60% of students wanted their universities of choice to campaign more heavily against sexual harassment, and 70% were unhappy with how their universities dealt with those accused. It’s clear that there is a problem on campuses, not just with sexual harassment in itself, but with the way that universities handle it.
In 2016, universities are perhaps becoming a little more responsive. The Tab recently released a list of universities offering consent workshops and other campaigns during Freshers Week, among which Edinburgh University was included. Working with the student-led charity Sexpression, which offers ‘judgement-free sex education for the real world’, EUSA have, they say, stepped up their campaign against sexual assault. According to their response to The Tab, EUSA will be working particularly with the Sports’ Union to combat ‘lad culture’ – a welcome reaction to the Delta Kappa Epsilon scandal two years ago, when leaked minutes from the fraternity’s meetings revealed rape jokes, transphobia and threats of sexual harassment. Other universities have also launched promising campaigns, ranging from the ‘It Stops Here’ programme at King’s College London to compulsory consent workshops at Oxford and Lancaster.
However, it remains to be seen how effective these campaigns will really be. Surveys and polls from a wide range of sources repeatedly show us that sexual harassment is a frequent and persistent problem on campus. All universities will have an official procedure for reporting sexual harassment, but many students either aren’t aware of this or, for one reason or another, don’t want to step forward. In 2014, a Student report interviewed several Edinburgh University students and found that sexual harassment was becoming increasingly normalised, and that many victims were unlikely to go through the procedure even if they knew what it was. “It’s the normal thing to do to completely ignore it”, said one. “It’s easy to dismiss sexual harassment as not serious enough to report. It’s almost like you’d feel bad for doing it”.
With this in mind, it seems dubious that the problem will be solved by consent workshops alone. In Edinburgh, EUSA’s poster campaign – featuring slogans such as ‘you can’t always get what you want’ – is a positive start to raising awareness and encouraging victims of sexual harassment and assault to speak up. Accompanying George Lawlor’s blog post was a picture of himself holding a sign reading ‘this is not what a rapist looks like’ – but the frightening thing is that there is no real way to predetermine who is likely to commit sexual assault, and despite the opinion of many – for instance, retired judge Mary Jane Mowat, who claims that ‘conviction rates will not improve until women stop drinking so heavily’ – the fault always lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. With Fresher’s Week looming nearer, it seems that the best thing universities can do is to make this absolutely clear, and to encourage victims to come forward. With the rise of charities such as Sexpression and increasing pressure on universities to do more to tackle the problem, a glimmer of hope remains that the persistent issue of sexual harassment and assault on campus will begin to decline.
Whether you are a survivor or a concerned family member, friend or partner you can contact ERCC directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Rape Crisis Scotland National Helpline can be contacted on 08 088 010302 between 6pm – midnight.