By Ellen Finch
One in seven female students is a victim of serious sexual or physical assault. One in four is a victim of sexual violence in general. Ten percent of these students have reported the assault to the police, and only four percent to their university.
These figures, taken from an NUS ‘Hidden Marks’ survey in 2010, don’t include male survivors of sexual assault: even without these additional statistics, they depict a worrying cultural trend. Whilst sexual violence is disturbingly prevalent, the majority of survivors appear to feel unable to report their attacks to their institutions. Since its publication, the NUS report has sparked conversations in universities around the UK about the level of support offered to survivors of sexual violence and abuse, and about the quality of education that institutions are offering about the issue. It is becoming clear that universities – including Durham – need to offer more in the way of support and advice.
The survey also draws attention to the reasons why the other ninety-six percent of female students didn’t report their attackers: half said it was because they felt ashamed or embarrassed, and forty-three percent thought they would be blamed for what happened. Laura*, a former student who agreed to talk to Palatinate, said that she didn’t tell the university because she felt she wasn’t a ‘good victim’ – ‘I came to university really vulnerable because of lots of things that happened in my life before.’ She became involved in an abusive relationship. ‘I was raped and sexually assaulted a number of times both by him and by multiple other men. I reported the last rape, but I didn’t tell the university, partly because I was about to leave and partly because I don’t think he was a student. All the other sexual violence was from other students who were known to me. I couldn’t tell because I was convincing myself I could cope with it. I told myself I deserved it and could handle it myself.’
It has become clear over recent years that we need to create a supportive, compassionate environment at university which reaches out to survivors. This environment should include a network of people who are trained to deal specifically with sexual violence and support survivors in a positive, constructive way. ‘I can’t imagine how you would just go and tell all of this to a college tutor who has no experience in sexual violence,’ said Laura, of her own experiences. ‘The questions over why I had willingly sought out sex with a stranger, why I’d stayed in a relationship with a man who raped me, why I was abusing alcohol, why I was compliant with some of the violence – as a vulnerable, confused twenty-year-old, I didn’t even have the answers myself.’
Durham’s approach to sexual violence and abuse is changing with the introduction of sexual violence awareness campaigns, particularly the introduction of It Happens Here Durham. The organisation was set up with the aim of educating students about sexual violence and creating a safe place for all members of the community. Since its launch in September 2013, the organisation has led discussions about sexual assault and prompted change in and around the university, and its network of organisers has grown dramatically in recent months. It is creating a culture that gives survivors more options, better support, and a chance to share their story.
Working closely with the university to establish a clear, coherent policy on helping survivors, It Happens Here hopes to explore options for raising awareness about sexual violence and supporting students more directly. The group is using the most powerful tool available at university – the student voice – to initiate action and instigate change. Their hope is that Durham University will continue to engage in discussion and commit to change alongside the campaign. They firmly believe that it is the university’s duty to work to create a culture that supports survivors and educates the student body: It Happens Here, and its affiliated organisations, is the medium through which such a culture can be created.
For more information on the ‘It Happens Here’ campaign and how you can help, visit http://ithappensheredurham.wordpress.com, their Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter (@DU_HappensHere).
*Names have been changed.
Photograph: It Happens Here Durham