In the early hours of Thursday 18 June, 2015, CCTV footage taken at my University of Cambridge College accommodation block shows me leaving through the gate. I am running down the street to my boyfriend's house, terrified, barefoot, dressed only in a t-shirt and underwear. Following a sports club party, I had been followed to my room, undressed against my consent and raped.
I was too scared to speak to the police but I reported the incident to College the next morning, given that both my rapist and I were part of the College community and it happened in College itself. I hoped that they would be able to look into what had happened, and that they would do something about the toxic 'lad culture' permeating the College which, ultimately, played a part in what happened to me. They did nothing, other than make me feel thoroughly alone and guilty.
The way in which College handled my rape deliberately kept me in the dark. I was told that they would keep me informed of what they planned to do; they did not - I only found out that they had decided to speak to the rapist when the Senior Tutor mentioned it in passing to my boyfriend. Upon emailing them to ask about this, I was told that they would inform me when they had spoken to the rapist; they did not - I saw that he had 'unfriended' me on Facebook one day and presumed that they must have told him what I had alleged. I was told I would be informed of all progress; I was not - I spent long periods of time with no communication from College regarding how they were treating my story.
Re-reading over my email exchange with College over the weeks immediately following the rape distresses me: my outbox is a series of messages asking for information or checking things that I believe have transpired, and their replies run to the tune of 'we'll be in touch soon'. I felt powerless: I had been in a situation where I had been physically overpowered; to then feel unsupported and in the dark in my dealings with College was crippling.
College also did a very good job of silencing me: I was advised to not speak to anyone beyond my boyfriend about the rape, as apparently I would find it unpleasant if there was a lot of gossip. I was directly advised not to speak to my parents as they would find it distressing to hear. It was insinuated that I may have cheated on my boyfriend, and therefore may have turned a one night stand into a rape out of guilt. I was informed that College had consulted their solicitors to find out their legal stance on this case, which served to reinforce my powerlessness. And I spent a lot of time being asked about my alcohol consumption that night (apparently this makes sexual assault a 'grey area'). I ended up feeling guilty, ashamed, and angry that College had not taken the opportunity to act against the misogynistic attitudes at the heart of one of their most popular sport clubs. My rapist got a slapped wrist for drinking, College got rid of a problem (me), and I got a year of nightmares.
I know that I am not alone in my experiences at Cambridge: this 2016 NUS report outlines the prevalence of 'lad culture', sexual harassment and assault at UK universities. Despite this, many universities still have little in place to help student survivors; institutions are under no obligation to provide support to their students in cases of sexual harassment and/or assault, or to investigate claims. My Cambridge College's policy on sexual assault, for example, amounts to a sentence in the student handbook which states that claims of 'sexual harassment and bullying' will be dealt with by a monitoring group. The lack of Title IX-style provisions in the UK means that we are far behind the US in our treatment of campus assault.
So what can we do? We can acknowledge that university sexual assaults are not a purely US phenomenon for a start. We have heard a lot about campus rape recently: the media attention given to high profile cases such as that of Brock Turner or Austin Wilkerson has instigated many much-needed discussions on misogynistic practices and rape culture in educational establishments. Social movements and documentary films about campus rape have been created, and it has entered into political discourse. But all of this attention has been focussed on the US; no such prominent public discussion has been launched in the UK into how rape culture manifests itself in (and can be promoted by) the institutions where many young people grow into adults.
And on a more systematic scale? Education is key to reducing sexual assault and dispelling rape culture in UK universities. This means not only educating young people (through meaningful SRE at school, or workshops at university), but also those with positions of responsibility in education: teachers and university pastoral staff need to know how to respond appropriately, without resorting to victim-blaming, to cases of sexual assault brought to them by scared and vulnerable students.
There is an urgent need for all universities to establish sexual assault policies, detailing who victims can speak to and how the institution will respond. Universities UK has already established a taskforce to look into the guidelines governing the handling of sexual assault cases in UK institutions, which represents a step in the right direction, and we need more of this kind of action.
Those who are brave enough to come forward with a claim of assault have the right to know that they will be listened to, what can be done to help them, and what can be done to protect them. I learned the importance of this the hard way, and would not wish it on anyone else.
Rape culture and campus rape is unfortunately alive and well in the UK's universities. Isn't it time we acted on this?
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