“Where’s your f****** empathy?”

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Content warning: this article mentions sexual violence and other themes which some readers may find upsetting.

“Where’s your F****** empathy?!” Kate Wilson, Co-Founder of asked Edinburgh University on 9th February 2024 as she stood tall alongside her campaign members — and Kirstin Hay,  and over one hundred students in Bristo Square who united in their disappointment over the handling of reports of sexual assault and rape by the University of Edinburgh. This protest was part of their five days of resistance to Gender Based Violence, and the third annual one held in the city. 

Two weeks later, I found myself sitting down with Ash and Kate in a quiet part of Edinburgh city, sipping on some herbal tea, surrounded by pillows and blankets to add to the cosiness of our interview — quite the opposite scene from the protest. I felt safe; a feeling perhaps we only value when we are reminded what it feels like to be in the absence of it.

emerged from two years of prior activism as a result of ‘’frustration’’ over the University’s current reporting system and their attitude towards sexual violence; and a desire to keep other students safe. In their manifesto, they state they are ‘’the change we want to make; and what others need us to be’’. 

Sexual violence is a “nationwide issue”

Kate wilson

Kate began by saying that she believes sexual violence is a ‘’nationwide issue’’, and that she feels that there is ‘‘rape culture’’ at the University, which is a key part of our discussion today. I asked the group why they felt this was the case and why they felt the need to turn to activism to keep their peers safe. 

At the start of the interview, Kate reflects on her own experience of going through the reporting process, which she thought was characterised by a “clear lack of support from the University themselves” and the difficulty in navigating through those services. In an interview with The Student, Edinburgh’s student newspaper, Kate described the University reporting process as “really stressful and quite traumatic”. She told The Student she was discouraged from going to the police as it would prevent the University from being able to perform its own investigation, making the choice to seek justice and safety via the legal system seem like an ultimatum.

In response to this, a spokesperson from the said that, “We do not discourage or prevent students from reporting any incident to the Police and we actively provide information and guidance for those who wish to do so.”

Kate feels that the is ”putting finance before emotional well-being of our general campus” and says that during and after the reporting process ‘’you were kind of left by the wayside’’ which she thought made the process feel very unsupportive and unsafe for survivors. A BBC article, earlier last year, included allegations from other students having “problems in accessing reports and of long waits to learn the outcome of complaints’’. 

Naturally, we have to question the effectiveness and fairness of the university’s process? Its existence is one thing, but its functionality and ability to adequately support survivors is another thing entirely. 

Kate feels that her University “has this policy that nothing will be done [about sexual violence allegations] unless you go through an official reporting process. And even then, the odds are against you.” With less than half of sexual misconduct cases being upheld at the in 2022/23, this feeling of hopelessness and invalidation is the reality for most students. She echos the sentiment of many students, that they do not willingly report sexual violence to their university, and it’s not their choice when they do, rather they ‘’have come to them [University staff] seeking support and have been let down’’, and “that’s terrifying” Kate says.

“The odds are against you”

Kate Wilson

From 2017/18 to 2022 had the highest number of reports of sexual misconduct in Scotland. The campaign believes that “there’s almost this sort of celebratory attitude amongst the staff that, well, ‘we support so many people and we have so many reports’’’. Rather, they find the University’s aim should be ‘’getting those numbers as close to zero as we possibly can’’ and not applauding the systems which evidence high numbers of complaints to begin with. The question the university needs to ask itself is why there are so many people going through this reporting system and what needs to be done to address the roots of it? 

Let’s understand what this system is. The has an ‘Equally Safe Team’ to investigate allegations of Sexual Misconduct. A spokesperson from the University told Palatinate, “We have a dedicated and specially-trained support team for survivors of abuse and we invest significantly in sexual violence prevention and raising awareness of this issue. We deliver training for students and staff to promote positive behaviours around sexual consent and tackling harassment, and we continue to work closely with our Students’ Association, partners in the city and frontline groups to support people in crisis.”

They continued, “We understand the strength of feeling on this issue and we fully recognise the responsibility we have in tackling violence, abuse and harassment on our campuses.” The University also has a ‘report and support’ service, where students can anonymously report harassment, discrimination, and gender-based violence, and receive specialised support.

However, students like Ash believe their University is ‘’then not taking any tangible action’’ and still not ‘’taking the concerns that students have into consideration’’. The campaign says that after the protest they were reached out to by the Equally Safe Team with high hopes for an apology from the university to all survivors who had felt failed by the system. It is what ‘’people deserve and want and need’ Kate said. Yet, once again, they were left disappointed by their university’s dismissive attitude and inability to show empathy or willingness to listen to its students which ‘’was very telling of the way that they approach sexual violence on campus’’ the group tells me. 

The spokesperson from the continued, “We want to make it clear that any reports made to us are taken very seriously. We have updated and improved our procedures in response to student feedback, ensuring that reports made to us are investigated robustly and fairly for all parties, and that those making a report are supported throughout this process.

“We continue to support discussions within our community and the rest of the higher education sector to explore ways of improving our support. We will continue to do all we can to ensure everyone in our community feels safe and protected.”

“sexual violence should never be part of the university experience” 

This brings us back to the paradoxical statement I started this article with ‘’Where’s your F****** empathy?!’’. Beyond academic commitments, we are reminded that university should be a fun, exciting and memorable chapter in our lives. We are not told that ⅔ of students experience sexual violence at university in the UK; 70% of female students experience sexual violence, as well as 73% of disabled students and 26% of male students according to survey by Revolt Sexual Assault. As Ash summarises it, “sexual violence should never be part of the university experience” but statistically, it is the endemic plaguing them.

Now I ask you, What does safety mean to you? As we started the interview, the sunlight was streaming through the windows, casting a gentle warmth and golden hue on the room. The feeling of safety amongst us felt like a privilege. As we finished talking the sun’s comforting embrace had faded with the night. “Text me when you get home safe’’ Kate quickly mentions before waving me goodbye. There is a perception that danger equates to darkness, or it’s the villain in the movie with a scary cloak. But the feeling of being unsafe is a lot more nuanced than this, and so is the ‘villain’. See, it wasn’t the darkness that made me feel a little bit on edge, but being met with the hard truth which as a young woman I was acutely aware of yet, still in denial of admitting to myself. University campuses can also be a place where you feel on edge and alarmed too, and that feeling is completely valid. Sexual violence can happen and be perpetuated by anyone regardless of their gender, identity, sexuality, age, or presentation. Undoubtedly, some students are more at risk, like females and disabled students but it is important to recognise the assumptions and myths we have about sexual violence too in this discussion. Everyone should feel safe on campus and in seeking the support that they need — it is the bare minimum. And, universities need to do more to protect their students now. 

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