Durham Survivors: “Nothing that you did, wore, or drunk could possibly implicate you”

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Content warning: This article contains discussion of the issues surrounding rape and sexual assault.

Durham Survivors is an Instagram account which was set up in July to provide a safe space for survivors to share their stories of rape and sexual assault in Durham. Palatinate spoke to the admins of the page about the widespread Durham ‘Lad Culture’, and their hopes for removing the stigma around being a survivor of sexual assault.

Behind the account

The account is run by four individuals, themselves survivors of sexual assault, who act as admins for the page. They said, “We are all survivors, and have very different journeys, but what unites us is the motivation to create a community to enable survivors’ voices to be amplified as a result of their courage.”

Durham Survivors is one of many pages which have emerged on Instagram, hoping to draw attention to the pervading culture of rape and sexual assault at UK universities. The admins were inspired by St Andrews Survivors, who recently made national news for their work. The Durham team said they could no longer stand to watch such incidents go unnoticed at Durham. “When the university system doesn’t offer the full support a survivor needs, there needs to be a community that they can relate to, that will listen, and that will offer light when no other route will. We believe this light can be, but should not stop at, Durham Survivors.”

Everyone is capable of sexual assault and everyone is capable of surviving an incident

“Sexual assault is everyone’s problem. As survivors we’ve become hyper-sensitised to boundaries being crossed all around us and have realised how little discussion around consent plays into everyday actions and narratives.”

One of the admins has recalled their own experience. They said, “My accused party said to me that they were not capable of sexual assault. This divides the world into people who are evil sexual predators, and those who are their victims. This dichotomy is universally damaging. Everyone is capable of sexual assault and everyone is capable of surviving an incident: until we realise this, its prevalence will not decrease. By allowing survivors to own and claim their stories in a safe space, we are creating a vehicle for empowerment.”

Challenging the culture

Durham Survivors hopes to “generate conversations and discourse on sexual assault that will enable other survivors to connect, understand their journey, and feel as if they are part of a community.”

Recently, exposed messages from a pre-freshers group chat expressing sexist and potentially harmful views have caused Durham University to come under scrutiny for its lack of action in cases of sexual misconduct. Does Durham Survivors believe there are certain factors present at this university which enable and normalise this behaviour?

“Put simply, yes. Durham has a culture of toxic masculinity, classism, and failure to recognise privilege. Changing the discourse around sexual assault within this university is paramount. Though the university support system has excellent academics and researchers making progress all the time, Durham lacks the encouragement to talk about sexual assault in ways that other universities excel.”

Durham has a culture of toxic masculinity, classism, and a failure to recognise privilege

Although the admins acknowledge that ‘Lad Culture’ is an “an overly performed phrase”, they consider it useful to explain what is going on at Durham. “It helps to identify the desperation to fall into camaraderie through forcing yourself into a group. It’s an excuse for insecurity, as we all come to university desperately grappling to work out who we are, what to eat in the morning, and how we can get laid. It’s natural that we all spend some time desperately trying to work ourselves out, but this desperation must not be offloaded onto someone else.”

“Toxic cliques and a fear of not being believed allows rape culture to exist so strongly at Durham University. Unfortunately, learning from our own circles and the Durham Survivors community, it is rare for a survivor to gain the knowledge of the formal processes needed to reach justice against their perpetrator. The more courage, open conversations and listening ears that can be available to other survivors – the more likely we can eradicate rape culture at Durham University.”

Being an active bystander

Many of the stories on the page are a stark reminder to stay alert on nights out, both for our own safety and that of other people. The admins emphasise the importance of intervention as a bystander. “Being a bystander means that you are a witness to incidents of sexual assault. If such a situation should arise, please intervene – whether you know the perpetrator, the survivor, or they are unknown to you. If the situation is too unsafe, and puts you at risk, try to find another way of stopping the incident, such as speaking to a bouncer, college staff, or calling the police.”

If a survivor makes a disclosure to us about their experience of sexual assault, the admins urge us to hear their story by recognising, acknowledging, and validating. “Don’t judge, or tell them what you’d do: just listen, and ask what they would like you to be for them. In your own time, familiarise yourself with what their story involved, read up, and find resources useful for their specific case. Your role is to be there to recognise and help them celebrate the small victories in an often long process of coming to terms with trauma. Lastly, look after yourself and seek to ease their load, not take it on yourself.”

The Gender Stigma

Over the past two months, the account has amassed a growing audience of over 1,800 followers and has received very little backlash. The admins expressed that “hopefully this just goes to show how impatient people are for change, and how these conversations must now finally be brought up to the surface.”

However, while the page has been ostensibly well received, Durham Survivors shared that women still make up around 80% of those followers. The admins suggest that the imbalance in their gender demographics could be due to the fact that women have a higher capacity for tolerating the stories shared because they are more aware of how common these experiences are.

This is not a female, or a feminist issue

“The very fact that men don’t engage in these issues, even if most want to, is the problem. It’s simply not social convention to do so. We cannot emphasise enough that this is not a female, or a feminist issue. Encouraging men to engage with these issues is the only way we can all collectively work together and put an end to the culture that enables sexual assault on campus.”

Durham Survivors is working on improving their resources to “culturally change the way some men engage with sexual assault” and challenge the stigma. “Many survivors are men, non-binary, or trans,” the admins stress. “Not all perpetrators are men. To those male survivors who have been trapped by the gendered culture of this conversation, we’re sorry. We wish that you could have felt more able to speak out, to your friends, to feel comfortable enough to be believed and not ridiculed. We’re trying to change these conversations, and we’re here for you.”

A message to survivors

Finally, to any survivors of sexual assault who may be doubting their experience or blaming themselves, the admins spoke about the importance of looking after your mental health and wellbeing: “These negative feelings deserve your self-love. Let yourself off the hook – if you want to cry, laugh, ask for an extension – that’s okay, no reaction is normal. Never blame yourself. It’s something that’s happened to you, not because of you. Nothing that you did, wore, drunk, could possibly implicate you.”

“One of the first things you can do is write down your words and look at them. Prove to yourself that they are real and your story deserves to be heard. If you feel able to, try to tell someone – whether that’s a friend, family member, partner, college welfare, or our page. Coming forward can look different for different people. Telling your story on a platform like ours isn’t for everyone, but reading other stories may help you get one step closer to seeking your own form of justice.”

If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, help and support is available below.

Local helplines:

Durham Nightline – find the contact number on DUO or on the back of your campus card

Durham Students Union Advice Centre – 0191 334 1777

Durham University Counselling Service – 0191 334 2200 

The Meadows Sexual Assault Referral Centre – 0191 301 8554

The Angelou Centre for women of colour – 0191 226 0394

National helplines:

Rape Crisis England and Wales – 0808 802 999

Rape Crisis Scotland – 08088 010 302

Rape Crisis Northern Ireland – 0800 0246 991

Galop for LGBT+ survivors – 0800 999 5428

Survivors UK for male, trans, and non-binary survivors – 0203 598 3898

Image: Durham Survivors

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