By Ellen Finch
Would you know where to turn if you experienced sexual violence? I suspect most people wouldn’t. I spend a fair bit of my time talking and writing about sexual violence, and for a long time I wasn’t sure where to go, either – to be honest, I’m still not sure I’m completely certain. And there’s another, more troubling question that links to my first. Would you turn to anyone at all if you experienced sexual violence? Do you trust that your claim would be taken seriously by your college, the University, even the police? I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if your answer to any of those questions was no.
It’s these issues, among many others, that It Happens Here Durham is trying to tackle as it works with the University, particularly the Sexual Violence Task Force. We’re a relatively new group, forming with only two members in 2012; we’ve only been a society for a year. Nevertheless, we have huge aims for Durham. Our three key goals are for the University to have a transparent sexual violence policy, better signposting for those seeking support, and mandatory training for members of staff, particularly those whose jobs require a degree of pastoral care.
The first goal brings us back quite nicely to my original question. It is clear that sexual violence is happening at university at an alarming rate: the most recent NUS report on the subject stated that one in seven female students experience serious sexual or physical assault at some point in their university life. Of those students, a total of 14% report their assault to their institution or the police, with the remaining students not reporting because they felt embarrassed or ashamed, or were worried that they would be blamed. The impression I get at Durham in particular is that the lack of a clear sexual violence policy, or a guide on where to go, might also be a significant issue. With the stigma that already surrounds sexual violence, might it not be discouraging to have no clear idea of who to go to for help?
A clear policy is something that should interest the University and its students alike. As well as providing a better procedure for dealing with victims of sexual violence, it might too offer ways of dealing with the perpetrators. Unfortunately, we live in a country as a whole where it is often the victims who are uprooted from their university halls, or are forced to find a different route to lectures, for fear of meeting their attacker on campus. It should be the responsibility of each university to ensure that both parties remain separated during any investigation of sexual violence, and it should not be up to the complainant to take extra measures to make sure that this is the case.
Policies take a long time to make, and the controversies and the ins and outs surrounding sexual violence makes the process more complicated and time-consuming. But there is still more the university can do in the meantime. It Happens Here’s second goal – to secure better signposting for victims of sexual violence – is perhaps the easiest to achieve. After all, everyone has the Nightline number on the back of their campus cards, and it has its own little section on DUO and the University website. It takes some searching, but mental health resources, too, are quite readily available, with the counselling service in particular being advertised through emails. Why, then, do sexual violence resources not have this same status? Considering the impact it has on students’ wellbeing, their mental health, and their academic performance, surely it is in the University’s best interests to provide a couple of links, maybe even a few phone numbers?
That’s what we’re trying to do at the moment. We’d like to see a section on DUO with the contact details of Rape Crisis and clinics in the local area. Ideally, we’d love to run a poster campaign around the Student Union, the library and other University buildings with details of how to get help. In the meantime, our own website has resources for anyone who needs them, including much-needed details of how to help a friend.
Finally, our third goal is about training. It’s about raising awareness of sexual violence and how to deal with it within the integral structures of the university. We believe that mandatory training should take place for anyone in a position where they might be approached by someone who has experienced sexual violence. This way, it will help reduce the chain of people involved in a single enquiry, ensuring greater privacy for the victim and decreasing the delay. Our opinion is that education on sexual violence should form part of everyone’s initiation into the University, too: after all, we have to complete a plagiarism tutorial and sit through police safety talks, so why shouldn’t sexual violence deserve a slot, too?
There will always be the cries of ‘but I know what consent is! I am not a perpetrator!’ of course; but equally, most Durham students would know what does and doesn’t constitute a fire hazard, and we still sit through fifteen minutes of fire safety talks during Freshers’ Week. If not to teach students something new about sexual violence – although you’ll be surprised to realise how much more there is to learn – then such talks serve to raise awareness of the issue, at least. Consent workshops will never be popular amongst the entire student body – although the ones we have run over the past year have been happily successful – but a talk on what sexual violence is, and how not to be a perpetrator, can hardly set one back in life.
Since I joined It Happens Here, I have realised how much more the University still needs to do for sexual violence. I am proud to have been part of a campaign that has raised awareness over the past few years, following the ever-growing trajectory of wider media coverage and, lately, even gaining traction in our own student publications. It seems that the student body is finally waking up to an issue more dangerous than river safety, more prevalent than muggings in the street. The University should wake up too. If you have experienced sexual violence, or even if you know someone who has, then you already know that Durham is much less safe than it supposes itself to be. I hope that our student campaign, however small it may be, can continue to work with the University and the Sexual Violence Task Force to provide a safer and more reliable space in which to study and live.
For more information on It Happens Here and what we do, please find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter (@DU_HappensHere) or visit our website: www.ithappensheredurham.wordpress.com
Image: Jade Correa