Tackling sexual violence at Durham

Swapping ‘rape culture’ for ‘consent culture’

By Tania Chakraborti

This month, Durham University student Samuel Bunyan was jailed for 32 months for sexually assaulting a fellow student as she slept beside him. This shocking event, along with the 36 instances of reported sexual assault at our institution over the past two years, has led The Telegraph to target the University as a place which engenders ‘rape culture’. The Sun went one step further by claiming that their recent article was ‘[exposing the] vile culture of sexual violence at Durham University’. Usually, any outlandish attempts made by such online media to disparage Durham can be skirted over as tabloid sensationalism; hungrily devoured by the gossip-loving public. However, in light of recent events, can anyone really blame the press for commenting in such a way?

Do we have a ‘rape culture’ at Durham, and if so, why is this the case? The Sun heavily implied that the drinking culture here, with university ‘cheap booze at Northern prices’, has somehow normalised ‘lad culture’. The article then quoted that ‘one-third of Durham […] scholars are from private education’, a fact which has no statistical link whatsoever to the number of sexual assaults which take place.

It is doubtful that the drinking culture at Durham is greater than at any other institution in the country; there is no tangible evidence for this. Of course, students should aim to drink responsibly and recent ‘scandals’ such as the Champagne Society ball have only served to act as weapons for the press to handily use against us when debating issues that actually matter. Although alcohol is often a commonality in sexual violence cases, taming our collective social lives is not the immediate resolution. The issue is not bound by educational background either, and to make such an insinuation is a ludicrous and blatant example of tabloid hyperbole. However, the issue is with a certain type of education, specifically, consent education.

The problem simply lies in understanding the law with regards to basic human boundaries. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines consent as occurring when a person “agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” Alcohol consumption means that this crucial choice is taken away from the individual; they simply cannot consent. This concept must be ingrained in our culture; there should be no blurred lines.

The University has made a string of ‘right moves’ recently; being the first notable academic institution in the country to appoint a ‘Student Support and Training Officer (Sexual Violence and Misconduct)’, as well as enforcing compulsory consent lessons for all first-year students as of 2015. Perhaps the exemplary welfare system in place, which allows students to feel safe in reporting sexual assault cases, is part of the reason for Durham being known nationally for reporting such a high level of offences.

However, this is only the start of what should be an ongoing process to ensure the end to all reported incidents. Shouldn’t consent classes be extended to all year groups? A poll conducted by YouthSight, as cited in The Telegraph in 2015, found that a shocking 43% of the women who took part from a host of UK universities had decided not to report sexual assault. Clearly, we still need to create an even safer environment for young people to feel comfortable reporting their experiences.

This week, in an attempt to firmly tackle this issue, the University, in conjunction with Student Union representatives and students from across both Stockton and Durham campuses, have met to discuss the growing problem of sexual violence and misconduct. (6th February Durham, 9th February Queen’s Campus) Events like these are crucial platforms for students to vocalise their concerns about how the University can improve its welfare system and student safety. Supporting university groups such as ‘It Happens Here’, which is ‘dedicated to raising awareness about sexual violence’, are vital to erasing ignorance around consent.

We need as many students as possible to engage with eradicating a problem which, in 2017’s supposedly ‘progressive’ society, should quite frankly no longer exist today.

Photograph by gamal_inphotos via Flickr and Creative Commons

 

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