When I first met Verity, the president of Durham University Against Sexual Assault, I must admit I had formed a set of preconceptions about what purpose the society would be trying to serve. None of them negative but preconceptions nonetheless about the nature of the conversations about sexual assault we should be having, largely based on the conversation we currently are having in wider society. I had made the assumption that this was a group ‘of the women, by the women, for the women’. But Verity very quickly made it abundantly clear that while DUASA is a space of support, for all genders, their primary aims are based on education.
DUASA have established a strong presence since the very beginning of fresher’s week, recognising the pivotal point that starting university plays in the importance of consent: “it is the first-time people are moving away from home, living by themselves. It is a lot of people’s first experience with sex, with sexual relationships, all these sorts of things”. And this is where education comes in. “Our goal as a society is education in just so many different realms”.
However, this education is not centred around narratives of how we can protect ourselves, or keep ourselves out of unfortunate positions, as we far too frequently hear. DUASA is looking to confront the root of the issue head on. “We are trying to educate potential perpetrators and to educate people on consent and on what is not consent”. Verity highlights that potential perpetrators are not just “strangers in a dark alleyway” but can be any of us who do not respect or even just understand people’s sexual boundaries and consent.
There frequently seems to be a fear about addressing the potential perpetrators of sexual assaults and sexual harassment for fear of implicitly accusing someone of being capable of such an act. It is easier to tell people to police their bodies, their drinks and their sexual experiences, instead of opening up real conversation about how to truly respect and understand boundaries and accept the ways we might have been doing it wrong.
Verity also wants to make it clear that DUASA understands the complexity of sexual assault and harassment, and that different circumstances can call for different responses. “You are allowed to address with that person that what happened wasn’t right. And you don’t necessarily have to hate them, you don’t have to cut them off from society. You can educate them. There are different severities and different ways of how you want to cope with it. A lot of it is educating people on what consent actually is… Whereas when the correct education is provided in the first place, there is no excuse. The goal is to work with the university to make sure that the boundaries surrounding consent and relationships are entirely clear”.
While DUASA believes this education is for all, it is especially keen to engage men who are often less engaged in the discussions of sexual assault, consent and other issues. Yet, Verity and DUASA are still clear that they do not overlook the ways in which men may be impacted by sexual assault and the nuances associated with that. “I think a lot of the time [men] don’t know how to actually say ‘no that wasn’t right… I wasn’t comfortable’. So, it is about starting that conversation and validating it, whilst diminishing the ‘lad culture’ and building the correct communication tools to chat about it. I know that most guys have brilliant friendships where I think if one person’s brave enough to voice it, the conversation around the issue would be tranformed’. DUASA see opening up this conversation among men as vital in all respects, not just helping those who might have been survivors of assault, but also in addressing the issue more broadly, holding friends to account and making sure everyone fully understands the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.
The next big change that DUASA hope to implement is introducing consent and active bystander training for students. “For me the dream would be that to be on an exec you have to have done this in-person face-to-face workshop … so you have the correct tools to deal with these issues”. Recognising the ways in which certain societies and teams hold their socials with alcohol and drinking games aplenty, Verity explains that “it’s just knowing how to deal with it and actually feeling that, when their friend does something that’s a bit off, you can address it and educate them. And do it in a way where you are not going to come across badly whilst still recognising that what your friend did is not on”.
While manning the DUASA stalls at the freshers fair and DUCFS Market Square Takeover, and at subsequent events, Verity told me how many people, frequently freshers, of all genders, who came up to her and her team and expressed that they didn’t think that sexual assault was something that happened in Durham. “I do think there is a level of naivety. Because it is taboo and those who do experience it or those who are accused of it are hardly shouted from the rooftops you will rarely hear of any cases.”
But if we can learn anything from DUASA, it is how vital it is to be opening up this conversation as widely and extensively as possible in order to start “breaking down the stereotypes and the taboo”.
To find out more about DUASA, their many exciting events and campaigns and educate yourself more on the issue, find them on Instagram @duagainstsexualassault. The Instagram bio also features a linktree with a hub of support and important contacts.