Will Railton: Yes
First things first, I am not here to apologise for sexual violence and I will not defend allegations made against the university of cases in which victims have been made to feel like an inconvenience or wrong for seeking advice. However, I do think it is important to consider what the University is doing both to prevent incidents and to provide support for victims.
Cherwell’s investigation revealed that only 17% of the students questioned knew what support would be provided by the University. Yet, it is not that support is not offered. Rather, it is clearly not being effectively publicised. Probably because this advice is organised within colleges, through harassment advisors and peer support and some colleges will be more effective in advertising than others. The University does run a counselling service and OUSU also runs campaigns but college is likely to be the first port of call for many victims. This is very easy to remedy and would ensure that victims are aware of people they can talk to.
The unfortunate reality with sexual harassment and assault cases is that victims are reticent to inform any third party for fear of being labelled a “victim” in public. The University promotes various groups based in Oxford, which it does not run, providing a distance from their studies and college which some victims prefer. Rather than decry the promotion of these groups as outsourcing, it is important to understand that some will feel more comfortable speaking to an independent service detached from the university fabric.
There are promising schemes in operation which aim to prevent harassment by educating students on what consent actually entails. So many have made complaints about being groped in clubs that “acceptable behaviour” evidently needs clarification. Earlier this term, Wadham ran mandatory workshops for freshers, raising issues of rape, sexual assault and violence. Many of these sessions involved asking students to identify whether consent had been given in a number of university-based scenarios. A number of colleges have run such projects and are considering making them compulsory. Controversial though this is, it would certainly reach people who would never ordinarily attend; those unconcerned with the issue who are perhaps more likely to perpetrate the offences in question.
Prevention is better than cure here; 100% of cases are avoidable. While Oxford might be able to help its victims, it can do little to compensate for the respect lacking in society as a whole. This needs to be addressed through wider public discussion. What the University can do is educate students on what sexual harassment and violence are, provide sufficient support to victims by publicising its own services and those available throughout Oxford.
Robert Walmsley: No
The report into sexual violence in Oxford, by Cherwell, clearly shows that not enough is being done to address the issue. Considering out of 107 Oxford students surveyed, 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”; there appears to be a serious problem of awareness about support services for victims of sexual violence.
The issue seems not to be that support organisations do not exist, but that they are not well-known. Unfortunately, the result of the lack of awareness of these organisations is much the same, as if they did not exist. No matter how good these services are, if no one has heard of them, then their benefit is largely wasted. Therefore, increasing the profile of these support services is something that badly needs doing. If students are unaware of where they can go to report sexual violence, then the inevitable result will be some acts of sexual violence will go unreported.
The debate about sexual violence should not only be about how sexual violence is dealt with after the event, but prevention as well. Students themselves have the biggest part to play in doing this, by creating an environment where such behaviour is unacceptable. It is worth saying some people seem to think there are different standards of behaviour outside of college walls, particularly in night clubs. The truth is there are not. Workshops in colleges are an essential part of getting students to think about consent and the clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
There is an also the problem, in Oxford, of unclear lines of responsibility. For example, where does the responsibility of colleges end and that of the University begin? It is not the case that colleges or the University do not want to address the issues associated with sexual violence, but without clearly demarcated responsibilities gaps in the provision of services are going to exist.
Many people assume, because they do not hear about sexual violence, that it does not go on. This is not the case. A disturbing aspect of the Cherwell investigation was that several respondents said their complaints were not taken seriously, by their colleges. When that is allowed to happen, it only discourages other victims from coming forward. Telling someone you have experienced sexual violence is a both a brave and difficult thing to do. Therefore, it is only right that we should make it as easy as possible for victims to speak out.
It is immensely important that both students and the University finally take ownership of this problem. The conclusion, we, as a University, need to reach is that we can do more and so should do more to tackle sexual violence and the other issues associated with it.