*TRIGGER WARNING* This post discusses sexual harassment, racism and rape, with links & screenshots which could be triggering. If this is something which might upset you, I would advise you to stop reading now.
This was an incredibly difficult post to write (and I have been trying to do so for a few months now) and it addresses some horrifying content. The reading and research I did in the lead up to the final post has honestly been quite scarring; however, these are very real issues and I think we need to talk about them.
Being at university makes you realise a lot of things. The last year and a half has made me grow in ways I never anticipated, and I’m thankful for it. I’ll admit that I don’t think the school I went to prepared me that well for real life – I came out with a great set of results and enough for a star personal statement, but I was raised in a bubble. I always thought that being aware of that fact was enough to help prepare for the real world, but it wasn’t.
All we need is one look at any article about the Warwick University group chats to know that we’re only at the tip of the iceberg that is rape culture at university. Admittedly, I was quite naïve to the reality of sexual harassment before going to uni, because what’s the worst that had happened before that? Getting asked for a couple of nudes from boys I barely knew was the most degrading thing that could happen, and having fought that off, I thought that was it. Looking back now, it’s something I wish we had talked about more at school. It’s almost like everyone pretended it wasn’t going to be a real threat to us the moment we walked out of the College doors for the last time.
Maybe it’s the fear of being judged. Or it’s the fear of being defined as a victim. Maybe it’s just an ‘awkward’ thing to talk about. Whatever our reasoning is, we don’t talk about sexual harassment at university enough. If the Warwick group chat taught us anything, (other than the fact that the university have basically given these boys a gap year – why anyone would apply to the university after this incident being so carelessly handled is beyond me) it opened our eyes to what can happen behind closed doors. (Edit: since the writing of this post, The Tab has reported that two of the students from the Warwick group chat will not return to the university).
I’m not saying that every rape victim ever has to speak up in front of their entire university, but I think we can do more to educate each other. We need to realise that some people might not even see it as rape; if it wasn’t violent, does it still count? If someone was drunk but still did it, does it count? What if they changed their mind and it was ‘too late’? It all counts. We have a culture of thinking that there’s a difference between saying nothing and saying no – we talk about “no means no” but it’s not even that, it’s “yes means yes”. How many boys and girls submit to any activity of a sexual nature due to immediate or social external pressure, from a boyfriend or girlfriend, a friend, or a stranger, because of the fear of being blamed for being a tease or a prude? Giving in is not consent.
I studied The Handmaid’s Tale at A-Level, where we went into the depths of feminism, rape, misogyny and more. A scene in Chapter 13 describes the Handmaids being made to “Testify”, where Janine tells them she was gang raped at fourteen. I remember being so angry about the Aunts encouraging the Handmaids to chant that it was “her fault”, because of course it wasn’t. It seemed obvious. Margaret Atwood herself said that “there is nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened”; even after knowing that, I was too naïve to see how susceptible we were to victim-blaming in real life. What if we stopped saying things like “more than three in five women will be the victim of sexual violence during their university career” and instead started looking at the perpetrators: “approximately one in 10 men at American universities have committed sexual violence“? It shifts your focus, doesn’t it?
So, here’s my main issue. Everywhere you look, women are told to take out their headphones when walking alone at night. To carry their keys tightly. To go easy on how many drinks they have. To tell people where they are at all times. To check the backseat of the car before they get in. I could go on and on, but my point is: when are we going to stop teaching women defence techniques and instead start teaching people not to rape or murder? Sorry, but I don’t think kickboxing is going to eradicate sexual assault.
I do count myself as fortunate, because I believe that I go to a university which has a strong support system, and I have incredible friends. I would know who to go to if I had a harrowing incident, but what about the girls who don’t know? Do enough universities have open-armed, confidential spaces for students to go to? What about societies that can support victims of this kind of thing? I think we have miles further to go in terms of getting everyone comfortable in talking about sexual harassment.
This is where we ask the question of what universities are doing wrong. It doesn’t take much research to see the massive level of victim-blaming that still goes on all around the world. Back in 2016, the Australian Catholic University published “tips for dating safely”, which included: “Avoid secluded places until you know your date better; Do not give mixed messages [and] be sure that your words do not conflict with other signals such as eye contact, voice tone, posture or gestures“. By educating women to avoid certain behaviour, we are teaching men that women are asking for it when they don’t comply: leading to too many students who are suffering in silence and blaming themselves.
So, where do we go from here? Here are some of the initiatives that are used in campuses around the world, particularly at Australian Universities:
- specialist training for university counsellors to support victims of sexual assault and harassment
- a 24/7 support line offering specialist support to students
- developing an evidence-based respectful relationships program for students
- bystander education & learning how to recognise coercive behaviour
It would be a massively positive step if more universities could take this kind of action to make their students feel comfortable.
I’d be lying if I said that I don’t panic the entire walk home if I’m out late and on my own. Maybe that feeling will stick for a long time; however, I am very lucky to have the odd protective friend who will always go out of their way to make sure I feel safe. So I’ll leave you with this: wouldn’t it be great if everyone was that friend?
If you’ve made it to the end of this one, thank you. There is much more to this topic, and I could go on forever, but I hope that this broad look at sexual harassment at university has made you think about what more we can do. I’m sorry that this one has been a bit hard-hitting (believe me, it was horrible to write) but I would love to use this space to talk about the more difficult topics more often, and I hope this has been somewhat enlightening.
Alternatively, you can get in touch with any of the organisations here:
Safeline – sexual abuse & rape support service
Rape Crisis England & Wales – organisations throughout England & Wales to support rape survivors
Mind – mental health information and support
There are many more organisations out there, and you can also speak to your local GP, A&E department or sexual health clinic.