Oxford University’s It Happens Here Tumblr was set up by the university’s student union (OUSU) in May last year. It was inspired by a similar project at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Since the page’s inception, there have been dozens of posts on it. They make for compelling and deeply disturbing reading. The range of stories and the figures involved in them vary greatly. They involve male students assaulting female students and vice versa, undergraduates, postgraduates, and, in one post, a tutor and his student.
Abigail Burman, a second-year undergraduate and one of the campaign’s founders, says, “I was a fresher last year and the only time it came up in the college materials was in a welfare guide, where we were told it was a possible consequence of drinking too much. That and a consent workshop — where someone said, ‘Of course you can give consent while you’re drunk; it’s university’ — were the only times I’d been talked to about this issue at all. There’s just a general sense no one was breaking the silence even though it was happening to huge numbers of people”.
Sarah Pine, OUSU’s Vice President (women), took over the campaign after it was started by her predecessor. “The NUS officer of 2010 sparked a lot of this off with the Hidden Marks report. It was the first study to address sexual violence at university. Female students are the U.K. group most at risk of sexual violence — it’s a pressing issue and one that’s not talked about as much as it should be”, she says.
Pine and Burman feel that part of the problem is the fact students don’t know who to turn to when it happens. A recent survey by the student newspaper, found that of 107 students asked, 83% stated that they were unsure or did not know about “any options at the University should you wish to report any kind of sexual assault”.
The student union was perhaps the first to realise there was a need for policy to address this. As universities go, Oxford’s structure is complicated because the colleges are their own separate legal entities, as are the departments.
“Policy and procedure are two important things”, Pine continues. “Currently all incidents of sexual violence fall under the university’s policy on harassment and bullying. It doesn’t explicitly acknowledge sexual violence so there’s a massive gap, which results in lots of problems. The university doesn’t know what to do and because of that ends up reacting badly. It’s qualitatively different — there are similar elements, in that someone’s dignity is violated, but there’s a lot of ambiguity, which is not what you want”.
Burman says: “The frustrating thing is that we’ve heard from a lot of alumni who’ve said they know it happened when they were there, but they didn’t know what to do. It’s been a problem for decades”.
“If anyone experiences sexual violence they need welfare provision,” adds Pine. “If someone was being harassed or bullied or if drugs were being dealt on your staircase there’d be provision for it, but if someone was raped or stalked — even if it’s something as simple as ‘I would like to not live next to the person who assaulted me’, it’s not clear how you’d do that. Having a policy, it’s not just a procedural function, it’s a way for institutions to say to students, ‘We think you matter’”.
The three prongs of the student union’s policy are advocacy, education, and awareness. It’s improving the policies at various institutions, administering consent education workshops, and running an education website, with the Tumblr as the final element — it’s designed to raise awareness.
Pine says: “Universities pedal this narrative of ‘This will be a home away from home, where you will feel safe and mature as a person, where you’ll look back on the best years of your life’. For some people that’s true, but for others it’s where they’ve experienced really predatory behaviour or really had their boundaries violated, or their sense of self has been completely whipped out from underneath them because this behaviour happens. Some colleges might deal with it well when they’re asked, but the truth is they don’t have any procedure.
“We’re concerned about provision across the university. A while ago the university realised there was a problem, and set up a harassment advisors’ network. Each person in each department is theoretically trained up in harassment advice and other soft skills, but previously the student union has had concerns about the standard of training provided, because we have heard some horror stories”.
Burman adds: “Yes, one person was grabbed at a dance and was asked why she couldn’t just grin and bear it. Part of the quirk of Oxford is that very few colleges maintain non-academic staff, so anyone in a welfare role is doing it in addition to their academic role”.
Pine says, “These are often people who are perfectly lovely, but with harassment and sexual violence if you don’t know what you’re talking about you can end up doing harm. There needs to be training: ‘Do not ask them what they were wearing, what they were drinking, was this your fault’, because that sort of blaming is rife throughout society. I’ve been pushing to get training for advisors. The university piloted it for a year, for some people, so we’ve made some progress”.
One theme that runs through the Tumblr is the fact that most of the abusers are known to the people they assault — often, in fact, have been friends with them prior to the incident. OUSU is also doing preventative work on this score. It’s hosting consent workshops, pushing to have colleges hold them in freshers’ week so that students get an idea of where the boundaries lie. “You should never leave consent up to chance”, says Burman. “We push people to talk to their partners. Communication is not a bad thing. It’s not embarrassing. There’s often this belief that people just grab you and kiss you wordlessly like in the movies — but actually that can amount to a traumatic assault”.
“Unfortunately we’re not that removed from retrograde attitudes at Oxford”, says Pine. “By having these workshops they preempt a lot of the myths abusers use to excuse violating people — that if someone’s drunk, or dressed a certain way, they’re asking for it. The idea also that sexual violence happens only when force is used, or when it’s a stranger. It creates a social context in which those excuses wouldn’t be tolerated. It stops them from having a social license to operate. And If they do decide to go on with it, at least friends can support survivors much better”.
The campaign’s stance on this issue has generated criticism. Most notably, Durham’s campaign distanced itself from what it described as “questionable information” on the Oxford campaign’s blog. In a news entry, it wrote: “We do not believe that sexual assault and rape can ever be an accident or that the perpetrator can be unaware of the lack of consent involved in an attack. We believe that sexual assault and rape is a conscious, deliberate act to violate someone else’s boundaries”.
In response, Burman says, “That was reflective of an early stage of the campaign. We are always learning, and since then have worked with someone from national Rape Crisis and still work with the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre to ensure that we are doing everything possible to support survivors”.
OUSU is also looking to move its campaign beyond the university: It’s pushing for the town’s police and crime commissioner to deliver a promised sexual assault referral centre. At present there’s a rape crisis centre but it’s an hour away. “There are very few support services in the town generally, so it means a lot of the time 18-year-old kids have it on them to support their friends”, says Burman. “I was once asked why people can’t just catch a train to the nearest sexual assault referral centre — the lack of awareness of how it feels in the aftermath in an assault is pretty stunning”.
As a matter of interest, I ask them both about the furore regarding Nick Ross’ book last year. Part of his argument was that women could take steps — not drinking so much, for example — to reduce the risk of rape.
Burman gives a strong response: “The ability to exist in a public space, to walk home at night, it corresponds to your ability to exist in public, to be a member of society. One of my favorite analyses points out that arguments like this basically amount to saying ‘go assault that other woman’ instead of taking on the societal issue of the existence of assault”.
And Pine says: “Once you start victim blaming — I’m sure you could pick apart what either of us is wearing today, and reconstruct it as an invitation to sexual violence, you could talk about anything, say makeup — there’s this horrible double bind, if we’re talking about women, which most victim blaming is perpetuated towards. Women are constantly encouraged to dress and act a certain way, and then when they do, they’re used as reasons to blame them. We all possess basic social awareness and it’s completely possible to marshall that”.
Indeed this is the main thrust of the website’s aims. It’s hard to have a productive discussion about sexual assault unless people realise the extent of the problem, and the multifarious ways in which it manifests itself.
“We create a space where people can talk about it, and say ‘that happened to me’”, says Burman. “It’s an amazing resource for showing people they’re not alone, but also, anyone you walk up to can say, yeah, I have a friend that happened to. It’s this bizarre unspoken social experience which shouldn’t exist”.