A few weeks ago I received an email from my college stating that something ‘serious’ had happened to a student, but being assured ‘these occurrences are very rare in Durham’. The following week the incident was revealed to be sexual assault. I beg to differ: people may not get attacked by strangers often, but sexual assault happens in Durham all the time.
A 2010 NUS study revealed that during university 7% of female students will be ‘seriously sexually assaulted’ and 16% will experience a ‘less serious form of sexual assault’ – that is a combined 1 in 4 women. While running the ‘It Happens Here’ campaign for the past year, nothing has suggested the situation in Durham is better than these statistics.
To tackle this we must bust the myths surrounding sexual violence. Being assured ‘these incidents don’t happen a lot’ misrepresents the situation: in reality, around 90% of victims are raped by someone they know. In terms of university, the same NUS study found that the most likely perpetrators were fellow students. Incidents are severely underestimated due to low reporting rates – only 15% of sexual violence ever gets reported, and 28% of victims never tell anyone about their assault. Rape is not just drugging someone or forcing them down violently, it’s also pressuring and coercing someone until they feel like they can’t say ‘no’; having sex with someone too drunk to make decisions; and having sex with someone who is asleep or unconscious.
Similar myth busting needs to happen around perpetrators. Rape is a crime of dominance, power and control, and has little to do with desire or misunderstanding consent. Rapists rape because they can. People of any gender can be victims or perpetrators, however the victims are overwhelmingly women, and the perpetrators overwhelmingly men. The Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales (2013) shows that 99% of perpetrators are men, 97% of which will not spend a day in jail.
We must also take steps to effectively prevent sexual violence. The emails referenced above also contained ‘advice’ on ‘what not to do’ (e.g. drink, walk alone, etc.). We must stop focusing on what the victim does and start focusing on what the perpetrator is doing. Telling women to not do something perpetuates rape culture and is useless victim blaming. It will make them internalise blame and not seek help if they have done the behaviours they were ‘advised’ not to; this approach isn’t saying ‘Let’s stop sexual violence’, it’s saying ‘Make sure perpetrators choose others’. The inefficiency of this is also illustrated by evangelical US universities that prohibit alcohol, and impose a curfew, yet where sexual violence still happens at the same rates. Additionally, only 1 in 10 assaults involve alcohol or drugs, but over 50% is perpetrated within an intimate relationship, therefore ‘strategies’ that focus on nights out become irrelevant.
To tackle this, we as a collective student body must call upon the university to make real, institutional change:
- Create a specialised domestic and sexual violence policy, committing to eliminate all forms of gender-based discrimination, limited not only to assault and harassment, but also rape culture and misogyny in general, as well as detailing clear-cut, strict sanctions for perpetrators.
- Commit to mandatory training on responses to disclosures for all staff. In a university system that offers so many pathways for support, it is impossible to predict who a survivor might turn to for help, and this cannot be a hope-for-the-best situation.
- Introduce a centralised reporting system that enables students to forego reporting to their college in the first place, as it is not the best route for all. Especially in cases where the perpetrator and victim are in the same college this poses a conflict of interest for the staff who must ensure both parties’ welfare.
- Following the lead of Oxbridge, introduce mandatory workshops on sexual violence, the systematic framework that surrounds it, and consent.
- Eliminate victim blaming attitudes, instead making clear the very serious consequences for assaulting, and encouraging bystander intervention.
- Introduce more practical safety measures, such as bringing back the Nightbus. A story on ‘Durham Feminist Forum’ details a young woman’s account of trying to stay safe by taking a taxi instead of walking down a dark street and being laughed at by drivers who wouldn’t make the trip as it was ‘too close’. What then? And what if you can’t afford taxis in the first place? If students walking past dark is a real concern, we need a reliable, low-cost solution.
There is a significant amount that needs doing and fast. The solutions are here – now it’s only about acknowledging them, and putting them in motion. Sexual violence isn’t extraordinary or rare – it’s an everyday occurrence and it happens here. It is up to all of us to change that.