The culture of sexual violence at my university was so normalised that I never batted an eyelid if I was groped in a club or sexually harassed in the street. And it was happening to my friends; why make a ‘fuss’? There was a complete lack of understanding that these everyday occurrences had a name, let alone criminal consequences.
Feeling uncomfortable was just a part of student life that I had accepted, even if it was annoying. But when such a culture is left to fester, things can get dangerous.
One night, another student walked me home and asked if he could come in for a glass of water because he felt ill. I thought nothing of it. That’s where my memory gets darker.
After his water, he refused to leave. He began to aggressively come on to me, despite me repeatedly rejecting his advances. I told him I wasn’t interested and I wanted him to leave. That’s when he grabbed my arm and forced me onto the sofa.
I remember that moment, in my student house, when I realised that saying no wasn’t going to be enough.
But the moment that changed how I viewed these incidents was when another student confided in me that she had woken up to someone having sex with her, while she’d been unconscious. It wasn’t her fault, it was rape; but my saying that didn’t make it sink in with her for months.
How could we both accept what happened to us and report it? We were studying, living and socialising within the student bubble, having to see our attackers daily. No support or reporting tools were offered by the university, because it’s a criminal offence.
And so the vicious circle begins. How could we report to the police, without provisions in place at the university?
As a student journalist, I felt obligated to do something. However, for the same reason I never came forward, other students didn’t feel comfortable speaking out publicly about their experiences. That’s when I decided the face-disguising features on Snapchat would allow the level of anonymity required for students to feel safe enough to share their stories. It became a powerful device for capturing the true extent of the problem.
Using #ItsRevolting, students all over the UK shared their heartbreaking stories through raw and humanising Snapchat videos; many expressing that they didn’t know which incident to choose because there were too many.
Revolt Sexual Assault is a campaign I founded to shed light on sexual violence at UK universities, give student survivors a voice and campaign for the policy reform required at a national level to address this issue.
We knew sexual violence was at epidemic levels; every student we spoke to had been affected by it or knew someone that had. So why were we the only ones talking about it?
Freedom of Information requests that I carried out showed shockingly low numbers of reports to universities, with one even having just one record of sexual assault in five years.
But how could we influence change without the data to reinforce what we already knew? So, in partnership with The Student Room, we launched a national survey on sexual violence at universities and we were met with an overwhelming response – over 5,000 students, taking the time to use their voice.
I knew it was going to be bad because I knew the needed support wasn’t there. And yet I was shocked.
Almost two-thirds (62%) of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence.
A third of students (31%) felt pressured into doing something sexual.
Nearly one in 10 students responded to say that they were raped at university (double the national average).
Not only this but, like me, students overwhelmingly did not have the confidence to report their experiences to the university. Only 6% did.
During the campaign, I’ve heard countless stories of sexual violence from incredible students – each of which has been too poignant to forget. Beneath the filters, the lifelong effects of these assaults are shockingly apparent.
The results of our report clearly highlight that the experiences shared through the videos of our campaign participants are far from tragic exceptions; this is the everyday reality for thousands of students.
Students that are suffering in silence, dismissing what happened to them and not being provided with the duty of care that they deserve from their university. Just 2% of students felt able to report their experience to the university, and were satisfied with the process.
How are we letting this many young people down?
Universities tend to approach social issues from their academic perspective. So much of the work going on in this area is far too impersonal: research, reports, numbers and proposals. They need reminding that there are humans involved – their students, with real stories and real emotions. I set up Revolt Sexual Assault to bridge this gap between institutions and student survivors.
I didn’t accept, or speak about, what happened to me until I had left the university bubble, when I no longer had to think about running into the perpetrator and was surrounded by my trusted support system – but no one should have to wait out what happened to them; students should feel supported by their university.
I want to see a uniform national response from the government to what now must be recognised as a nationwide issue – an enforced and consistent standard of care implemented across the higher education sector, with student survivors at its heart.
Universities need accessible reporting systems that minimise the distress caused to students, carried out by specially trained and independent staff.
It’s no longer good enough to rely on a statement that you have a ‘zero tolerance approach’ but have nothing in place to back it up.
Some of the smartest minds in the country are turning a blind eye to the same policies and procedures that are used for plagiarism, being applied to students reporting rape.
It is not good enough to force sexual violence into pre-existing policy framework; it is so important for specific policies for sexual violence on campus to be developed, and applied in a consistent manner so all students have a positive experience.
Before students get to university, we should have already taught them what consent, sexual harassment and sexual assault really mean, without enforcing dangerous misconceptions and notions of victim-blaming. Every brave and inspiring student that has entrusted me with their raw, powerful and heartbreaking stories pushes me that little bit harder to change things.
I want a society where anonymous Snapchat filters are no longer necessary. Where sexual violence at university is no longer normalised, and survivors, in the same position as I was, feel secure and supported enough to come forward, safe in the knowledge that they will be supported and they will be heard.