The silencing of survivors at university

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Bethany Woodhead

Content warning: this article contains references to sexual abuse and rape.

One quick Google search enquiring about the extent of sexual violence on university campuses is all it takes before you’re two hours into an internet black hole reading statistic after statistic, story after story, of all the horrors students have faced. Did you know more than half of university students say they have experienced sexual harassment or assault but only 8% say they reported it? There is a terrifying culture surrounding reporting, one I am not unfamiliar with myself. But despite the milestones the likes of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have achieved, why is it that we don’t feel safe reporting instances of sexual misconduct on our university campuses?

University is supposed to be a safe space: the literal epitome of a forward-thinking, culturally-modern, liberal sanctuary of acceptance and support. So why, as survivors, do we feel silenced? Why are the dregs of an age-old patriarchal university environment from hundreds of years ago still seemingly at the forefront of how universities tackle student sexual assaults?

Sexual violence is not always directed at women and I make absolutely no claims that this is the case; but we’d be ignorant to overlook the fact that women are six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than men. I personally do not know of one single woman in my life who has not at some point been groped, assaulted or raped. Not one. And that is spread across all generations, not just the student bubble I’m currently living in. There is no escaping the pain and torment of closing your eyes and remembering the details of your assault. The piercing eyes of a face you wish you could forget. The bubbling sickness in your stomach as you recall the unwanted touch of someone’s grabby hands. The ache in your heart as you try to walk through crowds looking like a normal person, yet you feel dirty, invaded and ashamed.

But abusers aren’t always dark figures down alleyways; many walk right beside us on campus and some are on the university payroll.

Walking around campus having to see their face, smug and self-assured as months go by and nothing has happened is a pain and a fear you cannot really imagine unless it has happened to you. Students are meant to be protected by people in positions of power at the university, so why are survivors being forced to confront their abusers every single day without escape? With so few students reporting incidents of sexual misconduct or violence, there are far too many people who are going about their lives without being held to account for the pain they have caused.

This is a bitter norm at most university campuses in the UK and it is something we are seeing on our very doorstep. Why is it that hundreds of students on campus are aware of who to stay away from yet the University has been completely silent? Why am I still seeing people on the payroll, standing in a position of power, interacting with students, when they are under investigation? Why am I seeing girls grip their friends’ hands as they walk through campus, desperately trying to shield themselves and make it from one lecture to the next without seeing a specific face? Or missing out on nights out with friends because the terror of being in the unions or the local clubs is too much?

I’m asking more questions than I can answer, because frankly we’re not being given any answers. I run the University’s official student newspaper; I have the power of words behind me and the reach to get messages out across campus at the click of a button. Yet until the University makes an official statement, after an official investigation, we legally cannot publish what we, and so many others on campus, know. I’ve spent months going around and around in circles, exasperated and furious that I have so much knowledge that I cannot share. I am a survivor. I know how it feels to be silenced. I know how it feels to have to see my abusers roam around freely. I know what it’s like to wake up screaming at night. I know what it’s like to be physically sick remembering the details of what has happened to you. I know what it’s like not to not want to be here anymore because the pain and torment is sometimes too much. I know what it’s like to not want to tell anybody because the bureaucratic mess of reporting is beyond off-putting and terrifying when all you want to do is make it through the day without crying. You are walking amongst many people who are experiencing these very things.

Universities say they encourage students to come forward and that they have things in place to protect us and make the process easier. But we feel silenced. We feel like there is not enough being done. You say we’ve come so far already but it is not far enough. You have students afraid to come on campus. You have thousands of other students who don’t even know who they should be afraid of. Progress is moving too slowly. Enough is enough. 


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