TW: Sexual harassment and assault.
Picture this: you’re on a night out with your friends at the SU (pre Covid, obvs). You all make your way onto the crowded dance floor and a boy comes over. You start dancing with him. He’s kinda cute, even in the dark. Eventually, he wants to take things further and you say no. Not only do you say it, but you angle your body away from him and gesture with your arms. N.O. He smirks at you and as he walks away, he grabs your bum. He gropes you. Suddenly, you’re left alone on the dance floor, not really sure why that just happened. You said the magic word, you weren’t drunk, you weren’t doing the things you aren’t supposed to do, but you still got sexually assaulted.
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
According to the Revolt survey, groping and unwanted sexual touching is the most common form of sexual assault experienced by students and recent graduates. It happened to me too. The story I just told you is mine. I’m telling it because something so commonplace and seemingly insignificant is actually a big deal. Under British law, groping is sexual assault, a crime worthy of fines and imprisonment. That fact doesn’t seem to be common knowledge.
Speaking from personal experience, groping is prevalent in Higher Education. Most of the people who experience it, and, I’m sure, the ones doing it, don’t realise that it’s a crime. I’ll bet you anything that the majority of students you know have a groping story. Maybe it happened on the bus once, maybe it happens on every night out. Maybe it happened to you, but you don’t like talking about it. It is a crime that many of us have unknowingly witnessed or experienced. It is humiliating and unwanted, and never ‘just groping.’ Why have we normalised such an uncomfortable and upsetting criminal act?
56% of perpetrators were known to their victims.
(Revolt Report, 2018)
Groping doesn’t leave any visible marks, and it can be done so quickly that often the perpetrator has disappeared into the crowd before you have a chance to notice their face. In the unlikely event that you catch them, who can you turn to? Some universities have specific sexual misconduct policies, that aim to safeguard students against this sort of thing. I’m one of the founders of Reclaim the Campus, a campaign that researches and analyses university sexual misconduct policies. So far, we’ve researched around 40 universities, and only 13 have specific sexual misconduct policies. It is rare that universities have such policies, and even rarer that they properly enforce them. Warwick’s recent decision to allow a student to return to campus after they had admitted to sexual misconduct is just one such example of this. The 2018 scandals at Trinity Hall, Oxford are another. Warwick has a sexual misconduct policy, whereas out of Oxford’s 39 Colleges and six private religious halls, only one has such a policy. This simply isn’t good enough. Lack of clear and effective sanctions only serves to leave perpetrators unpunished, with victims feeling that they can’t speak up. They stay silent, because they feel like no one will take them seriously and because groping is often difficult to prove.
34% of students that identified as female and 35% of student that identified as non-binary reported feeling pressured into sexual activity. 9% of students identifying as male did so also.
Another issue is victim-blaming. How many times have we been told that we shouldn’t wear a short skirt or drink too much, to avoid being assaulted? But how many times have we been told not to grope? Some of this is due to patriarchy, with men often being the perpetrators of sexual assault, and women being socialised not to make a fuss. Some of this comes down to a lack of knowledge about the different forms of sexual assault, and some is a lack of empathy.
When I was groped, the people around me carried on dancing, and no one seemed particularly bothered at how upset I was. I decided to confront the guy myself. About an hour later, I noticed him in the crowd, went over, swore at him (sorry Grandma!) and got a laughing apology from him. Not good enough.
So, how can we fight back? Not everyone has the opportunity or the confidence to speak up, or confront the perpetrator. We need backup. As part of its campaign against public sexual harassment, Our Streets Now is examining how the issue plays out in Higher Education. Their new HE ambassadors will be at various different universities across the country, bringing light to something hidden in plain sight. They’ll be starting an important conversation that we should have been having for a long time. Hopefully, this will give more of us the confidence and knowledge to speak up when we see it happen, but it should also deter potential perpetrators.
It won’t end rape culture overnight. That requires ongoing and sustained social change, but tackling PSH in Higher Education will be a step towards making that happen. Universities reflect what goes on in wider society, but they can help to shape it too. If enough people get the message, surely this will save a lot of people a lot of upset later down the line. It would have saved me a lot of discomfort.
By Lara Brett, one of the founders at Reclaim the Campus. This campaign aims to tackle sexual misconduct at UK universities by analysing university policy on this subject, to see what measures are already in place, and where universities could and should do far more to protect their students.