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This Is Why People Are Debating About Rape On Uni Campuses

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Photo: Unsplash.
In 2011, Oxford postgrad Elizabeth Ramey called a rape crisis hotline a few weeks before her exams. The operator was unequivocal: if she hadn’t consented, or didn’t have the capacity to consent, it was rape. “That hit me like a load of bricks,” she remembered as we discussed her case. “Nobody wants to have that word applied to themselves.”

Having been attacked by a fellow student, she reported to the university what had happened, only to be told, sorry, it couldn’t be looked into until she went to the police. That would mean a full criminal investigation. “You’ve just had your body violated in this very intimate way, and now you’re supposed to willingly submit your body for examination, also by strangers, in a sterile environment. I just remember thinking: 'my body is a crime scene'.”

Despite being put through a procedure she described as "re-traumatising", the Crown Prosecution Service decided there would not be a strong enough chance of conviction. Meanwhile, Oxford claimed there was not enough tangible evidence for them to act, and the case was dropped.

Ramey's lawyer say the university sent a memo to staff to say that the perpetrator should be spoken to (it was not sent to the perpetrator himself) about being "more careful in the future about putting himself in situations with female students which are open to misinterpretation." The memo was published The Independent, The Telegraph and the Mail.

Oxford University weren’t putting random barriers in front of Ramey – they were following national rules agreed by university management in 1994: the Zellick guidelines. For over 20 years, a report by Graham Zellick, former principal at Queen Mary, University of London, has been used to guide universities’ treatment of survivors. It encouraged an absolute requirement that any action they take must be predicated on the involvement of the criminal justice system.
Now, after a judicial confrontation that took Ramey all the way to the High Court, as well as national action from students and their unions, his report finally looks set to be overturned.
Universities UK, the organisation for Vice-Chancellors and university leaders across the country, will this Autumn issue a report deciding on whether to keep them. The National Union of Students (NUS) are confident their recommendation to scrap them will be largely accepted.

“Zellick was fundamentally created to protect institutions, not students,” said Susuana Amoah, last year’s women’s officer at the NUS. “It was created to prevent institutions having responsibility over actually penalising perpetrators.”

In a country where only around 15% of incidents of sexual violence are reported to the police, many universities have ended up dismissing cases over the course of Zellick. According to Amoah, people of colour and international students are particularly less likely to report to the police because of concerns over racist policing and in the latter demographic, worry over their UK status. LGBT+ people are also less likely to report for fear of prejudice.

Ramey knew what she was up against: “The bar for a criminal case is 99%, beyond reasonable doubt, and it’s the most extreme cases, with very overt violence, the cases where the perpetrator and the victim never knew each other previously, those are the cases that are far and away the most likely to be prosecuted.”

A solution, she argued, would involve taking a leaf out of the legislation employed where she comes from, the United States. There, ‘Title IX’ of the 1972 federal law enshrines universities’ responsibility to investigate and respond to reports of sexual violence outside the criminal justice system. Designated Title IX Coordinators are meant to provide specialist help to survivors of rape in every university in the country.

“I think reasonable people who know nothing about this can say ‘well yeah but we have a criminal justice system, this is a crime and should be reported to the police,’” she explained.

Yet codes of conduct at university exist for a variety of other crimes and misdemeanours, often leading to investigation and resulting in disciplinary action.

“Forgery, bribery... one of the colleges at Oxford had a provision against possessing an explosive! All of these things are crimes under the legal system, but they're also offences against the university," says Ramey. "If one student punches another student on the lawn that student can face university repercussions separate from a criminal assault charge in a court.”

“Why is it the only time for which that is not the case is sexual assault and rape? Which, by the way, happens to affect women far more than men and the perpetrators happen to be men far more than women.”

This was the basis of her judicial review, that the policy – Oxford’s policy – fundamentally amounted to gender discrimination. The judge ruled there wasn't standing for her particular case, but said that in some cases Zellick could indeed be applied unlawfully. It threw the rules into the national spotlight. Now living in America, Ramey penned a 1000-word article in The Telegraph explaining what she was doing.

Last year, Cambridge University made headlines after some individual campuses wrote policies that specifically distance them from Zellick. As the Guardian reported, the new policy "would allow victims to formally report allegations of sexual violence to the university for the first time."

On this, NUS Women's Officer Hareem Ghani commented: "I know for example that at Cambridge, Amelia Horgan who was Women's Officer there lobbied to move away from Zellick and they revised their disciplinary procedures because of criticisms from the student body saying Zellick was inadequate."

She also mentioned that King's College London has done the same: "After an SU campaign, they now conduct their own investigations into cases of sexual harassment, and they do still push students to go to the police but at least acknowledge many students will not want to do that."
Elsewhere in London, the NUS have been gathering evidence. Way back in 2010 they had been collecting data for the Hidden Marks report, the first ever nationwide investigation into women students’ experience of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault.

It showed that while 7% of students had been subject to a serious sexual assault around the country, reporting levels were extremely low. Many said they felt ashamed or embarrassed; 43% thought they would be blamed for what had happened, and one in three thought they would not be believed.

A second report, which came out this year and was entitled That's what she said, sought to give voice specifically to survivors’ stories, and Susuana Amoah’s wide-ranging work on "lad culture" led to the creation of the government task-force which may now overturn Zellick.

“I think at first they sort of denied it – like ‘yeah NUS has got these figures but it doesn’t really happen on my campus,’” she said. “It has to get past the denial stage.”

There’s also technological change, she adds: “Students were able to use social media anonymously or otherwise to talk about their experiences and it was no longer something institutions could sweep under the carpet.”

After taking all this evidence on the Zellick guidelines, the task force earlier this year announced they would officially review them. Nicola Dandridge, the chair, said that, although the guidelines are not statutory, “there is a need for them to be refreshed to reflect the changes that have taken place over the last 22 years since the original guidelines were written.”

Universities UK remain reticent about the outcome of the report until it’s generally released. They did say, however, that criticisms of Zellick were not raised much in advance of the creation of the taskforce, and that many in higher education institutions had not heard of them before that point.

They also stressed that while the guidelines were never mandatory for universities to follow, they do remain partially relevant. They also reminded me that Graham Zellick himself still stands by his work.

If the guidelines are overturned, says Ghani, the challenge will be implementation. While a change in guidance will encourage universities to act – having trained people there to receive reports – awareness of this support, proper investigations and disciplinary measures will require funding: for the big universities it won’t be much of a burden, but the smaller and specialist colleges face an uphill struggle.

As Elizabeth Ramey explained to me, the system isn’t necessarily fully functional, even with the right laws in place: “That's the battle being waged in the United States right now, it’s really to hold the universities to account for these federal provisions. But the law was on the books for decades, it has been on the books for decades – in the UK, it was just non-existent.

“But that’s the nature of social change, is the incrementally pushing it forward. Because there is a sort of political moment, maybe, ideally, the UK could actually move faster on this than the U.S. has done. Perhaps optimistically this is an opportunity for the UK to really show that it understands these issues and takes them seriously and is going to be at the forefront of these issues globally. It’s an opportunity and it’s one I really hope the UK takes.”

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