The young woman in front of me was an attractive, spirited graduate who’d attended a top university but as she began to tell her story, I noticed she was trembling.
At a university party known as a ‘bop’, eight men had cornered and sexually assaulted her, she told me. ‘They grabbed my breasts and bottom and tried to thrust their hands down my trousers.’
Ironically, she wasn’t at the party as a guest, but as an official student bystander, a designated chaperone, if you like, to ensure good behaviour among her peers — a role created in the wake of allegations of assault, including rape, from other female students.
When she reported the abuse to the college authorities, she claims she was fobbed off repeatedly. It was only when her frustration led her to burst into tears that her senior tutor finally decided to act.
Last month’s outpouring of sexual abuse testimony from women and girls in UK schools and universities shocked the nation (stock image)
Four months after she graduated in 2018, a reporting ‘policy’ was introduced. You might be horrified that one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world treated victims of sexual assault with so little care. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Last month’s extraordinary outpouring of sexual abuse testimony from women and girls in UK schools and universities has dominated headlines and shocked the nation.
More than 13,000 disturbing stories of harassment, assault and even rape have been posted on the website Everyone’s Invited.
While this movement initially focused on incidents at some of the country’s top secondary schools, it has since exploded into universities and the website now features shocking testimonies from women at such esteemed universities as Exeter, Glasgow, Warwick and Edinburgh.
As I read them, I find myself saddened but unsurprised. As a former secondary school teacher and researcher of the topic for 30 years, I am well aware how common it is.
TOXIC RAPE CULTURE AT TOP UNI
A student at a Russell Group university said she was raped on campus by a friend and wrote an open letter to the vice-chancellor
Last November, a student at a respected Russell Group university said she was raped on campus by a close friend.
In an open letter to the vice-chancellor, she wrote that the ‘rape culture at the university is toxic’.
The woman started university in 2019, the year after it emerged that some male students had been sharing graphic comments about rape, genital mutilation and assault against their female peers in a group chats on social media. Some were expelled.
In the letter published in the student newspaper, the student said that since starting university, ‘every girl I know has been inappropriately touched on a night out or been the victim of inappropriate comments, or felt unsafe in certain situations’.
She called for the university to take greater action to prevent sexual assault on campus by implementing compulsory workshops on consent for all new students and making more students aware of how to report an incident or receive support.
A spokesman for the university highlighted its ‘report and support’ system for students to report incidents of sexual violence or harassment.
I have been raising awareness about sexual abuse at the heart of British Higher Education since 2017, when I started working with John Edmonds on our book, Unsafe Spaces: Ending Sexual Abuse in Universities. Finally people are paying attention.
We consulted studies from a National Union of Students (NUS) survey in 2010 to a Telegraph 2014 survey and, most recently, one conducted by the sexual assault campaign Revolt Sexual Assault in 2018.
They believe around 15 per cent of female students and 3 per cent of male students are abused while at university. This equates to about 50,000 students at universities in England and Wales every year.
This ranges from offensive language, harassment, touching and stalking to unwanted sexual advances, sexual assault and rape.
That would be bad enough, but if you consider that many cases go unreported, according to the Revolt Sexual Assault survey, the real figure is more likely in the region of 60 per cent of female university students.
It’s an epidemic, and in my opinion the sector’s failure to address it is a public scandal.
When researching our book, we interviewed 60 women who reported many incidents to their universities only to be effectively cut adrift. Some even said the system supported their attackers more than them.
One told us: ‘Being raped was dreadful but the way I was treated afterwards upset me even more. I think it was all the hoops I had to jump through that caused my PTSD.’
Another young woman told us she was raped in December 2018, but felt hugely let down by her university when she reported it.
Then 20, she was walked home by a male peer after a party.
‘He asked if he could come inside because it was cold. Then he told me I owed him a kiss, which he took from me.
‘I was pretty drunk and fell backwards. He choked me and I passed out. I woke up to him raping me.’
The next day, she was accompanied by a friend when she went to the police.
The detectives she spoke to were very understanding; she feels it was the university that failed her.
She says that while she was forced to put her studies on hold, her alleged rapist was allowed to remain on campus. She was treated for PTSD and suffered panic attacks after bumping into him.
At the time, the university said: ‘We take allegations of sexual violence seriously and ensure victims are offered support and allegations investigated fully.’
More than 13,000 disturbing stories of harassment and rape have been posted on website Everyone’s Invited (above: pupils protest rape culture at Highgate School in London)
The case was closed by police but the young woman says she had to wait three months for on-campus counselling. ‘I just feel like he is more protected than I am.’
So why isn’t more being done to support students like her? Part of the answer is that in an ever more competitive climate, universities are keen to protect their reputation.
When an ‘unfortunate’ incident occurs and there’s a flurry of publicity, the university typically makes a statement about ‘zero tolerance’, the public is reassured and the university is trusted to clear things up without need of outside interference.
Some male students wear badges reading ‘It is OK to rape on your birthday’
Then there’s the casual way the sex lives of students are regarded by society. When told of our research, one colleague asked: ‘Isn’t it just kids mucking about?’
We made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to all universities in England and Wales asking for the procedures which are used when complaints of sexual harassment and abuse are made.
The one neither of us could get over was the university policy that suggested the victim meet her abuser to discuss what had happened: if the victim didn’t feel they could, they were advised to go for assertiveness training. That really did take our breath away.
We also found so-called ‘lad culture’, particularly in student sports clubs, plays a significant role. One NUS-commissioned report refers to men who are ‘lad by night, decent guy by day.’ Add alcohol and what was described to us by many women as a ‘pack mentality’ takes over.
CASTING COUCH AT ROYAL MUSIC ACADEMY
The Royal Academy of Music (pictured) was hit by claims of sexual harassment
The Royal Academy of Music was hit by claims of sexual harassment and misconduct as an independent review revealed ‘a widespread culture among students of the fear of ‘speaking out”.
In 2019, more than a dozen students claimed teachers had asked them for sexual favours or made lewd comments.
One was reportedly told to ‘get used to the casting couch,’ while another was advised to take a year out to ‘go and work in a brothel’ if they wanted to get ahead in their classical music career.
Complaints came from male and female students, many still teenagers. One alleged being told ‘a b*** *** would be a good start’ if they wanted to please their tutor.
The Academy did not comment on the allegations at the time but after the review’s findings a spokesperson for its governing body said: ‘This is exactly the guidance we require to hold ourselves to the very highest standards in this critical area.’
Sometimes the assaults are public, with the perpetrator’s mates looking on, encouraging further acts accompanied by loud jeering.
A theory propounded by some commentators is that in several universities the main male student population comes from single-sex public schools. They tend to be unsure about how to approach the opposite sex or how to treat women properly.
Is latent fear of the opposite sex the reason why sport and drinking societies’ initiation ceremonies encourage degrading women?
Take the 2016 report by Universities UK that said of one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, Durham, was ‘strong on sport’ and that ‘drinking games, often with an element of sexual aggression, are an essential feature of most sports clubs and social societies’.
The police in Durham say: ‘Cheap drinks and wealthy students make for a toxic cocktail.’
A Durham University spokesperson said: ‘In recent years Durham has heavily committed to making substantial changes that we believe are necessary.’
We heard a horrifying report of a girl being ‘peed on when lying on the ground drunk… with friends of the boy standing around laughing’.
Being groped in nightclubs appears to be the norm; some male students wear T-shirts with slogans such as ‘F*** a fresher week’ and badges reading: ‘It is OK to rape on your birthday’.
The prevalence of porn is another factor. The majority of young men look at it automatically — even, according to one lecturer we spoke to, during lectures. If they think this is what normal sex is, you can imagine what happens when they are faced with a real woman.
Meanwhile sexual harassment and abuse by staff is far more widespread than you’d imagine — and even less likely to be reported. We found that PhD students and younger staff members are particularly vulnerable.
Both rely on their supervisor or Head of Department for references, so to make a complaint seems inadvisable.
Junior staff members can also be preyed upon by senior colleagues. We interviewed a junior lecturer who was assaulted by her boss, a senior and respected lecturer.
She went to see him in his new office, as arranged, to discuss her research when he attacked her, ‘launching himself from behind, putting his hands under my arms and grabbing my breasts. I kept shouting, ‘Get off me, get off me,’ trying to prise his hands off my body. He eventually backed off’.
She described it as a ‘frenzied attack’. She felt ‘utterly ashamed’ and told no one for a while. When she finally confided in her university, her abuser was simply banned from entering the building where she worked on campus.
She was so afraid of bumping into him, she eventually decided to leave.
Cheap drinks and wealthy students are a toxic cocktail
Another impediment to justice is that complaints procedures are either unknown to victims, difficult to locate or understand and involve, in some cases, lengthy and tortuous processes and several meetings with possibly unsympathetic administrators. Sanctions, if applied, often seem paltry.
We heard that one victim, who took her case against an abusive member of the teaching staff to a higher authority, was told: ‘Do you want to make a formal complaint? If so, I have to warn you that it might be difficult for you and might cost him his job.’
With this kind of advice, it’s not surprising that formal complaints seem to be sparse. Many women suffer in silence while the same number of predatory men are free to strike again.
Perhaps most poignantly, many do not tell their proud parents for fear of disappointing them, which only intensifies their feelings of isolation.
There’s a long road ahead, but we do believe things can change.
Take Amy Moran, former President of the Student Union at the University of Leicester. When she heard stories from fellow students, she was so horrified, she got the new Vice-Chancellor to meet 15 people who had suffered sexual abuse of some kind.
Senior university staff are often guilty of ‘lofty detachment’, so meeting victims face to face can have a big impact. There has been real change at Leicester with specialist advisers, easy-to-follow procedures and help on hand 24-7.
It’s time for the many other shamed academic institutions to follow suit.
Unsafe Spaces: Ending Sexual Abuse in Universities by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds is published by Emerald Publishing, £25.99.