By Izzy Harris
Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault and rape which some readers may find upsetting.
As social secretary for my college boat club, passionate attendee of college bar crawls and someone who gave herself whiplash by dancing so enthusiastically at a ball last year (although that might have had something to do with a ball pit), it would be fair to assume that I have been missing Durham’s many social traditions during the pandemic. However, even if we wear gowns to our formals, penguin suits to balls and the most ridiculous costumes to socials, it’s not possible to dress up the darker social norms at Durham University.
During Freshers’ week 2019, a crowded hall of students in my college were told (without a trigger warning) that we should be pleased by reports of Durham’s high levels of sexual assault as it shows that people feel comfortable disclosing it to the University. In my first year, it quickly became apparent that this was not the case and that I had landed myself in a cesspit of lad culture and misogyny. This issue is, at the best of times, ignored or passed off as youthful promiscuity and drunken mistakes and, at the worst of times, lauded and applauded by sections of the student population.
Recent scandals, including the very public freshers group chat where a group of boys set themselves the challenge to sleep with the poorest girl, brought this to light for those without first or second-hand experience. But stories like this, where evidence is provided by screenshots, are the tip of the iceberg of sexual deviance and classist attitudes among students. Often the perpetrators of these crimes walk among us; when living in college they eat in the same halls as their victims and could be friends with their friends. I never thought that at university I would find myself having mutual friends with rapists.
It feels like there is an imbalance in the number of men who would claim to know of a rapist in their college compared to the number of women who do. This is an interesting phenomenon given that the same ‘lads’ who are the first to deny the University’s rape culture are often the givers of nicknames such as ‘rapey (first name)’.
This behaviour does not need to be linked to Durham’s social traditions which should allow for fun with friends and memories in your college. However, until rape and assault are not linked to these traditions through women’s lived experiences, they cannot be disentangled.
While the pandemic has put a stop to Durham’s traditional nightlife in college events, pubs and clubs, this social norm has not necessarily gone away. Women have noticed and reported a growth in street harassment, stalking and flashing of female students in Durham. Last term this prompted the creation of a mass group chat of women living in the Viaduct area in case they needed to call for help. However, the difference between this issue and the sexual assault epidemic is that the latter is ignored and accepted as a part of life at university, particularly because many incidents are perpetrated by members of a victim’s college and university community, which can make it feel much harder to report.
Despite all of this, I cannot wait to be back out dancing, eating and drinking with my friends in Durham when the pandemic no longer gets in the way. The fact that my trauma and experiences in my one year at this University can physically wind me when I am in certain places in college or the city doesn’t mean that I don’t want to have fun. I know that my experience is a shared one with many other students around me, especially in my college, but that shouldn’t make people feel guilty in enjoying Durham’s rich social traditions. It should, however, make us take a stand against rape culture in the University so that its traditions can be enjoyed by all without fear.
If you have been impacted by any of the issues in this article, you can seek help through the University by reporting it officially or by requesting support anonymously (https://www.dur.ac.uk/sexualviolence/report/). Externally, you can report to the police, which can be anonymous. There are numerous support charities and help lines in the North East and nationally for advice and counselling.
Illustration by Verity Laycock