By Zeenia Cawasji
On October 28 I went to watch a documentary that was part of a film series held by GLAD and CRiVA. It was called The Hunting Ground and it explored sexual violence and assault on campuses around the United States. This documentary was followed by a talk by the Sexual Violence Task Force (of which I wasn’t aware existed). Before the speaker began, I found myself thinking, “thank God things like this don’t happen in Durham” – and if they did, I was certain that these cases would be very rare. Unfortunately, I was seriously mistaken with this presumption.
After the member of the task force spoke to us we were given the opportunity to ask questions and this is where the major points of contention started to unfold. What was initially intended to be a discussion designed to praise the task force and their work turned out to be a heated argument against those very people. Members of the audience started talking about the extent to which sexual violence occurs here in Durham and how just like in the documentary nothing is done about it. One individual was even brave enough to share her story about how she had been raped here at Durham. Most crucially, when asked about what would be done if a person were to report a case of sexual violence we were given no proper response by the Task Force. In fact, no clear course of action was outlined to us. It was at this point that I came to realise my own naiveté and ignorance in assuming that Durham represented a safe home, immune to these cases of violence. This recognition made me understand how the majority of students remain unaware of these prevalent and extremely disturbing cases simply because we have never been personally affected or informed about them. This needs to change.
Two individuals during this discussion were particularly vocal in their arguments and I noticed them frantically taking down notes which made me think that they were possibly part of some society. I walked up to them at the end and I found out they were members of ‘It Happens Here’. I had never heard of this society before but I immediately asked to join their Facebook page and attended their next meeting. Little did I know that this would lead to one of my greatest experiences here in Durham. ‘It Happens Here’ is a society which aims to raise awareness about sexual violence and assault and aid in its prevention. Not only has it given me the opportunity to fight for a worthy cause, but it has also opened my eyes to the problem of sexual violence and the fundamental barriers in place that prevent assistance to victims worldwide.
When I found out that Castle Lecture Series had invited Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, prominent figures in the documentary The Hunting Ground, to give a talk on November 25 I was beyond excited and could not wait to hear them speak. Annie and Andrea are co-founders of EROC (End Rape on Campus) and are listed alongside President Barack Obama as some of the most influential forces in higher education in the United States. Since I was now part of this society I thought it might be a hugely insightful and beneficial opportunity for us to try and arrange a meeting with them so that we could learn more from their experiences. Our meeting was supposed to be held in a room at Castle but due to an overbooking we ended up going to the cafe ‘Flat White Kitchen’. It was quite unreal that only one month prior to this I was watching them on a projector screen and now here I was sitting with them and enjoying a chai latte. Any feeling of nervousness associated with being around these celebrity figures soon vanished as they were both incredibly down to earth and friendly. What was supposed to be an hour-long formal meeting/interview turned out to be a lovely informal chat with them about all of their work; they even postponed prior plans they had arranged in order to continue our discussion. Both Clark and Pino had so much advice to offer us and even related to our situations as they explained that they had found themselves in our exact position three years ago when addressing the issue of sexual violence.
I could write pages about all the successful work that Annie and Andrea have done or how much they have inspired us. But I won’t. What I will do is stress the importance of something that I feel is particularly important here at Durham. This has to do with awareness.
Some of the reasons that people ‘get away with’ sexual violence and assault and why others know so little about the extent to which it occurs is because a) people sometimes treat these issues as something that does not happen often just because they are lucky enough that it has not happened to them, b) we tend to use such topics as materials for jokes even though we may not mean much by them, and c) we are often unclear about what constitutes as sexual violence or assault and this makes us ignorant towards the everyday actions of some, which we pass off as being ‘too insignificant’ to make a fuss about.
I would like to elaborate on an aforementioned point that I feel is incredibly crucial. Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us have gone on a night out and been groped or felt up by a random stranger against our will. And while some people retaliate, more often than not we do nothing about it because we take it as something that ‘just happens’. If we continue to have this attitude and think that nothing can be done then obviously nothing will change. We need to voice our objections over such unacceptable behaviour so that at least the person who committed the action becomes aware that their behaviour is inappropriate. Even pointing them out to the bouncer would help and possibly initiate them being kicked out of a club due to their conduct. Once we start to treat these so-called ‘little things’ as the bigger issues that they are, only then can we hope to see these actions change. As students, we have become conditioned to downplay these forms of assault, as it is possible to rationalise these occasions as alcohol-fuelled and minor in nature. It is important to realise that these ‘small’ acts are also considered to be forms of sexual assault (albeit a milder form) and they play in to a much larger issue and must be curtailed.
With regards to the other two issues mentioned, statistics have shown that nearly one in three female students and one in eight males are subject to such forms of sexual assault in the UK. These are not promising statistics and despite popular assumption, they can happen to any one of us. Therefore it is imperative that we take a stand against such behaviour, even if it hasn’t affected us personally; just because something has not happened to us does not mean it does not happen often. Finally, it appears that unfortunately we have a tendency to admit sexually inappropriate ‘jokes’ or phrases into our everyday lives and idiom. But these matters are not to be spoken lightly about. They are serious issues and need to be treated as such. In fact, the more we treat these topics in a light manner, the more we indirectly condone such behaviour.
Our knowledge and attitudes toward sexual violence and assault need to change and only once this happens will we be able to come closer towards making a change. The most important thing to remember is that It Happens Here. It happens everywhere. And through awareness we can make the first step in preventing it.
Photograph: Zeenia Cawasji