Twenty-three per cent of women experience sexual assault at some point in their lives, a shocking fact when you consider that this equates to almost a quarter of the women you know. What’s more, data collected from 124 out of 157 universities in the UK shows a recorded 1,436 allegations of sexual harassment or sexual violence against students in 2018/9 alone. And these are only the recorded incidents. Evidently, this epidemic is especially prevalent among university students — so why aren’t we doing more about it?
Warnings about ‘student safety’, such as urging people not to walk alone at night and providing services for those who may be most vulnerable to attack, are undeniably important. But, the reality is that most sexual assault at university does not come from strangers on the street. Only 8 per cent of rapes are committed by someone unknown to the victim. Statistically, you are more vulnerable in the supposed safety of someone’s bedroom that you thought you knew, than you are walking home from a night out. Yet it seems that no one is willing to admit this, perhaps because it is so much harder to prevent individuals from changing their mindset than it is to encourage preventative measures which ignore the real underlying issue.
The only way we can hope to overcome this problem is if we begin to acknowledge it. Personally, I believe this all starts with communication — initiating a frank, honest, open discussion about sexual assault at universities, from why it happens to how we can eradicate it. Consent culture, normalising the act of explicitly asking for and actively maintaining mutual consent throughout sexual encounters, sometimes feels undermined by the ‘lad culture’ we have come to accept as a stereotypical aspect of university life. The weaponization of awkwardness, in not wanting to ‘ruin the moment’ or invite rejection, alongside the manifestations of toxic masculinity as not being able to acknowledge when something feels wrong, often results in a prioritisation of male pride over female autonomy.
All of these things may feel small individually, and we are often quick to brush signs of dangerous behaviour under the carpet, but jokes about rape or boasting about unreciprocated sexual conquests, if left unchallenged, can lead on to situations which could have unimaginable consequences for everyone involved. If someone you know, whether male or female, makes a comment that you are not comfortable with — don’t just laugh it off. Rape culture survives through a repeated silencing of those voices that most need to control the narrative. The statistics are clear: even if you have not been personally affected by sexual assault during your time at university or otherwise, it is more than likely someone you know will have been. So, speak up for them.
Consent in sexual relationships is not complicated — it is active, enthusiastic, ongoing. It is not implied, coerced or assumed. In a university environment, a time when for many casual relationships and experimentation with different forms of intimacy are the most prominent, educating students about consent should be a compulsory aspect of every curriculum. The most important thing to remember is that there is a discernible difference between what could be called simply ‘bad sex’ and fundamentally non-consensual sex. Contrary to some interpretations, it is easy to tell the difference between the two. Complications usually arise when there are only two witnesses to an event in which one voice always gets prioritised.
It is not news that people feel reluctant to report incidents of sexual assault for fear of being disbelieved. Overall, only 15 per cent of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police, with one particular survey showing that only 6 per cent of respondents reported their experience to their university and only 2 per cent felt both that they were able to report it and were satisfied with this process. And can you blame them? When the outcome is likely going to be a conversation about what you were wearing and how much you’d had to drink, is it any wonder that people are disinclined to repeat the trauma of their experience only to be told that they are making it up? Perpetrators are not being held accountable for their actions because victims are not being listened to, and so the cycle will continue, without anyone ever knowing the extent of what is really going on.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, especially in light of the most recent updates on Harvey Weinstein’s recent conviction and impending sentencing, there is no denying an awareness that we as a society are facing a mass reconsideration of what it means to have healthy and safe intimate experiences. What I find so ironic in this is the incongruity between what is happening in the world around us and the microcosmic universe that is our universities. These are institutions with educated, mature and responsible people, yet there is so much to be understood about what is right and wrong. It is our responsibility to both teach and learn.
University is meant to be a place of newfound freedom, living independently from home and family for the first time, making active choices in the management of your own life — but often this freedom, independence and choice are compromised by the threat of physical or emotional violation. Loneliness, anxiety and depression are already dangerously familiar among university students: add to that a feeling of fundamental insecurity, and student life becomes almost unbearable.
As we begin to take student mental health more seriously, surely a reconsideration of our conversation about sexual health, an integral part of the individual and collective university experience, is long overdue.