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Sexual violence in Oxford: is anyone listening?
Most students don’t know about the help available for survivors of sexual violence, Cherwell can reveal.
Of 107 Oxford 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.” Only 17% of people said they knew the support available for students who survive sexual assault.
The revelations come as part of an investigation into sexual violence across the university. Cherwell asked 225 anonymous students about their experiences of sexual violence, across the majority of JCRs in the university.
The majority of those who said they knew about support available, 12 out of 16, listed resources offered in college. One person cited OUSU. Five people said they knew resources were available, but were unable to name any.
More on this story: we asked Oxford activists for their stance on sexual violence in the university. Read their responses here.
An Oxford University spokesperson commented, “The University of Oxford takes allegations of rape or sexual assault extremely seriously and the welfare teams, peer supporters and harassment advisors based in the colleges, would be on hand to offer immediate support to students involved in any cases of sexual harassment or violence.
“They would support students who report having been raped or sexually assaulted and would encourage them to report those allegations, which are a criminal matter, to the police.”
There are other resources provided for survivors of sexual consent, including OUSU’s It Happens Here campaign, Oxford Rape Crisis Centre, and the university’s counselling service.
Olayinka Oduwole, President of Oxford Women for Women International, noted that many are unaware of these services, commenting, “Some students do not know about these procedures and some may not want to use these procedures due to public perception and negativity associated with being called a victim of such issue.”
She continued, “We must also encourage students to speak up about these issues and make sure they get positive treatment afterwards and try to reduce the negative perceptions associated with being called a victim”
The University of Oxford does not have a separate policy on sexual violence: sexual assaults are included in the Harassment and Bullying Policy.
The policy states, “Allegations of harassment or bullying which arise within the college environment will normally be dealt with under the appropriate college procedure.” It condemns “humiliating, intimidating, and/or demeaning criticism” of individuals and “unwanted physical contact, ranging from an invasion of space toe serious assault.”
The investigation, which defined sexual violence as “any form of non-consensual sexual act”, received 71 responses from people who had experienced assaults. Of these people, only eight (11%) “Felt able to report the incident” to college.
Survivors who had told their college about their experiences had mixed feelings about how useful the response was. Six out of 10 people said their case was not taken seriously by college, with one more person “unsure.” Eight said they were unhappy with the outcome of the incident.
One student said, “I was eventually taken to our college Chaplain, after I had suffered severe after effects. He was fantastic, and is possibly the only reason I am still at Oxford.” Another student praised their college for ensuring the aggressor moved out of their house.
Nevertheless, several respondents criticised the welfare provided. One student stated, “When reported the incident, I was told that I was naive and “did not understand boys” as I had been to an all-girls school. I was also told that “things happen when heavy drinking is involved”.
Several criticised welfare officers, with one respondent saying that after a complaint, she “never heard from them again... Months later, I emailed one of them. Their response was that they didn’t think I was actually making a report. “Another expressed anger that “nothing happened”, with the perpetrator only “being a bit told off.”
The main reason victims of sexual violence felt unable to report assaults were a fear of not being taken seriously. Although this was mostly problem for people who had been groped in clubs, this concern also affected people who had been raped. One female respondent expressed fear, commenting, “I didn’t want to get stick for ‘playing the victim’ after ‘regretting a one nightstand.’”
Another woman who had been raped said, “I felt that it would not have been taken seriously because I had taken part in sexual activity with the guy in question, but had told him I didn’t want to have sex.”
One account said, “I was treated so poorly by the college, and made to feel like such an unwanted outsider, that I felt unable to trust anyone to help me. Plus I started to blame myself for what had happened; I felt so ashamed and traumatised and there was no one to turn to, so I decided it must have been my fault.”
Others said they “didn’t want to be called slut”, or that they “felt that it wouldn’t be seen as abuse” having consented to other sexual acts.
Another major reason for choosing not to talk to college authorities were a sense that nothing could be done. Several students said that having been assaulted in clubs, their college could do little to discipline the perpetrator.
One student, assaulted by a fellow Oxford student in a different country, said she “didn’t feel support from college was possible on my year abroad”.
Difficulties in reporting sexual assaults were exacerbated by the size of colleges - many victims knew their attackers well, or wanted to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
One student wrote, “It was someone that I know well and I don’t think that they knew how uncomfortable it made me.” Another said, “The perpetrator was someone I’ve slept with in the past so I felt that it wouldn’t be seen as abuse.”
In one account which happened in Freshers' Week, a student said she “felt it was necessary to keep a low profile as I did not want to be seen as “stirring up trouble”.
There was a gender split among people who experienced violence. Men were in a minority, with six men (8% of male respondents) telling Cherwell they had experienced sexual assault. None of these men reported the violence to college authorities. Many suggested this was because men are rarely heard when they complain about sexual assault. One man said that “males are never taken seriously in such situations.”
A second man echoed the sentiment, commenting, “I think there’s a prevailing sense that when a guy sleeps with a woman without his consent it’s less of an issue as in the opposite case. Especially if the guy is drunk - if a girl is raped when drunk it’s unacceptable; if a guy is raped when drunk it isn’t really even considered sexual abuse.”
The University’s central Harassment Advisory Service monitors incidents handled by harassment advisors. During the 18 months from March 2012 to October 2013, 11 incidents have been recorded.
These include five cases of stalking, two of sexual harassment, two of sexual assault, one of relationship abuse, and one of honour based violence.
Has ‘lad culture’ normalised sexual violence?
The investigation also reveals the frequency of sexual assault in nightclubs across Oxford.
Of the 41 students who gave descriptions of their experiences of sexual violence, 17 happened in Oxford nightclubs or bops. None of the students who described these events reported the offenses.
One female student said that “most times “she went out in Oxford she was “groped or had [her] bum slapped by strangers when [she] didn’t want them to”.
Another was “groped at clubs on a fairly regular basis”, but claimed never to have reported anything “because, even though groping is sexual assault, the general consensus is that you should have to put up with it, given how often it happens”.
One student told of an incident when “a random guy in park end grabbed [her] hand and shoved it down his trousers”. Another described time when a man she’d never met “squeezed her bum” in a nightclub queue: “he seemed to think that it was okay, because I said ‘Hi’ to him.”
Many students suggested that assaults in clubs were so common they had become the norm. As one woman argued, “at the time it didn’t seem important enough, and to be honest it happens so much there didn’t seem to be much point. Guys grabbing you in clubs etc. are just the norm; I didn’t even know who to tell.”
Two respondents described being groped at college bops. One woman said she remembered “being groped, kissed, felt up without my permission during bops. Not asked if I consent but too drunk to consent anyway.”
Another said she had “been groped in clubs more times than I care to remember, but one instance that stands out for sheer shock as opposed to gravity was when walking through Park End on my own to find my friends a man walking past me put both hands on my breasts to stop me.
“I was so shocked I couldn’t think to respond so just pushed past, but it was so out of the blue- I hadn’t seen it coming - it seemed particularly uncomfortable.”
An NUS report on “students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault" carried out in 2009-2010, found that the majority of perpetrators were studying at the same institution as their victim. The only exception to this was the category of physical violence, where 48% of offenders were students.68% of those who responded to the survey had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. They considered behaviour such as groping, flashing, and unwanted sexual comments to have become ‘everyday’. 16% had experienced unwanted kissing, touching or molesting during their times a student, the majority of which was described as having taken place in public.
One St Hilda’s student commented, “One of the biggest problems is making people realise that their actions are sexual assault and in no way funny.”
Kerrie Thornhill, a D.Phil. Candidate and a junior member of Oxford’s International Gender Studies Centre talked about incidents including the controversial email sent by Pembroke Rugby Club condemned as ‘misogynistic’ last week. “Some students feel that the ‘FREE PUSSY’ email was meant in jest, and therefore should not be taken seriously as an example of promoting rape. In fact, the link between men’s sense of entitlement towards women’s bodies, and their propensity to rape is well-established in research on college students. We’re talking hundreds of studies, including ‘banter’ as a means of enforcing harmful norms and behaviour.
“Does joking about rape, denigrating women, or blaming the victim, mean that you are actually a rapist? Well, it means you think like one, and that alone should be cause for concern. All freedom-loving women and women-loving men should condemn rape culture because it dehumanises all of us.”
One member of Women for Women International explained that this attitude is often seen on Facebook, and can have a far more damaging effect than some would assume.
She commented, “From the survivor’s perspective, the wide spread of misogynistic Facebook posts could make some survivors feel as if the entire world is like their abusers and they might feel even more unsafe and powerless.
“For me, the issue becomes less about whose views are right or wrong than about the society’s responsibility/sensitivity towards protecting survivors of hideous crimes.”
If you would like support have experienced sexual violence, several Oxford organisations are available.
• Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre (OSARCC) - 01865 726295. OSARCC was strongly recommended by survey respondents.
• University Harassment Advisors - 01865270760
• University Counselling Service – 01865270300