Content Warning: Sexual Assault; Mental Health; Personal Account
The worst day of my life was the day after I was sexually assaulted in my first term at university. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine how I got through that time – I felt completely paralysed by circumstances out of my control, unable to consider a future in which things would be normal again. The overwhelming feeling wasn’t one of shock, or hurt, or even anger. It was fear: uncontrollable, persistent, debilitating fear. Fear that is unfortunately all too common among the women who study at the University, whether they are a first-hand survivor or are simply aware that it is something to be afraid of. 23% 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. It has been over a year since I became a part of this statistic, and I am okay now – but the situation still is not.
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 that’s only the recorded incidents. 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. Often though, this freedom, independence and choice is compromised by the threat of physical or emotional violation. As we begin to take student mental health more seriously, surely a reconsideration of our conversation about sexual health, a frequent part of the individual and collective university experience, is long overdue.
Last term there was a publicised incident of sexual assault on our University campus. The response from students, locals and others was overwhelming – 12,788 signing a petition to “increase safety for students at University of Exeter” – and urging the University to take measures such as introducing a night time shuttle bus and increasing the visible presence of Estate Patrol on campus and in designated student areas at night. All of this is undeniably important, and it is reassuring to know that people are taking student safety seriously. But the reality is that most sexual assault at university does not come from strangers on the street. Only 8% 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, thought you could trust, than you are walking home from a night out.
So how do we even begin to tackle an invisible problem that is barely talked about, let alone published in the news? Personally, I believe it all starts with communication – initiating a frank, honest, open discussion about sexual assault and how to prevent 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 this University in particular. The weaponisation 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, results in a prioritisation of male pride over female autonomy. Consent is not complicated. It is active, enthusiastic, and ongoing. It is NOT implied, coerced or assumed. As displayed on a Devon and Cornwall Police poster, “sex is only sexy when both people want it”. When this is not true of the situation, it is not only unsexy, but there can be serious consequences.
I have always been somewhat aware of the misconduct that can go on behind closed doors and stay locked in that room forever, but it wasn’t until I experienced it personally that I realised just how badly things needed to change. Not just for me, or for the people that I know, but for everyone- men and women alike, university students and otherwise, older generations that have learned to stay silent and younger generations that we must encourage to speak up. We cannot change a culture that is not acknowledged as existing; we cannot change individuals that choose not to acknowledge a culture; we cannot change situations that have already happened perpetrated by these individuals. All we can try and do is educate people about what is happening and how, in the very least, not to perpetrate it- before it is too late. In my case, perhaps one day he will realise what he did. But I am not holding my breath. For now, I am only trying to breathe again.
Read Exeposé’s recent news story on sexual assault at the University: https://exepose.com/2020/02/03/sexual-assault-triples-in-exeter-since-2010/
Here are some support networks you can contact if you feel affected by any of the issues discussed in this article:
University of Exeter Wellbeing Services (Phone: 01392 724381, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Devon Rape Crisis & Sexual Abuse Services (Phone: 01392 204174, Email: email@example.com)
Rape Crisis (Phone: 0808 8029999)
The Survivors Trust (Phone: 08088 010818)