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Oxford students hold vigil at the Union

Oxford students took part in a vigil at the Oxford Union on Thursday evening, calling for the Society to “take every rape allegation seriously”.

Approximately 150 people gathered outside the Union entrance, in a “quiet and dignified display”, holding a two minute silence in respect for survivors of sexual violence. Attendees listened to testimonies offered by people from amongst the crowd, some of whom had themselves experienced sexual assault.

Speaking to Cherwell, one of the organisers of the vigil, Caitlin Tickell, explained, “We wanted to do it for three different reasons: firstly, to show solidarity with survivors of sexual violence; secondly, we wanted to show the Union how angry we are about the way they have handled this; thirdly, we wanted to voice our demands to the Union, for example we are asking them to put in place consent workshops for officials.”

OUSU VP for Women Sarah Pine explained why she had helped to organise the event, commenting, “Everything that happened at last week’s no confidence debate demonstrated a fundamental lack of respect for survivors of sexual violence, whether this is someone getting up and shouting ‘irrelevant’ at someone who was speaking about rape, or the flippant comments and the idea that taking allegations seriously is a breach of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – that’s not true.

She continued, “I was so happy to come here today because everything that happened last week appeared to play a part in rape culture more broadly, and demonstrates how people at the Union are buying into that rape culture and perpetuating it.”

The vigil took place a week after the controversial debate of no confidence in President Ben Sullivan. The debate ended after two hours of discussion with the House voting to abandon the motion.

Those in attendance carried placards stating, “reform the Union” and “end rape culture”. Union security staff removed banners that had been hung on the fences after the vigil disbanded.

The vigil took place on the same day that the Union Standing Committee discussed introducing sexual constent workshops for elected officials and making future no confidence votes binding.

Although the moves were met with support from protestors, many felt the Union still needs to do more. Charlotte Sykes, one of the editors of Cuntry Living, commented, “the Union still has a lot of work to do to show us that it’s serious about taking rape allegations and rape culture seriously.”

Sykes’s reservations were echoed by campaigner Barnaby Raine, who pointed out, “There is a slightly amusing panic in the Union where they know that people are angry with them, they are desperate for people to be not angry with them but they are also desperate not to change anything.

“Today in Standing Committee they discussed making no confidence motions binding, however they also discussed ensuring that to have a no confidence motion you’d have to get 300 signatures within 24 hours, which is designed to make those binding no confidence motions never happen. We want the Union to take real action to change things but they shouldn’t try to do PR jobs.”

President Ben Sullivan commented, “Last week the Union held a free and open debate on a no confidence motion. After nearly two hours of debate members voted, with 254 in favour and 101 against, to dismiss the motion.

“We understand however that this is not the end of the matter and that a number of members still have concerns, as such a vigil was held outside the Union tonight. We intend to take steps to put some of those worries at ease, such as instigating a rules change that would make motions of no confidence binding. We are also going to hold non-directional sexual consent workshops for members starting this Michaelmas.”

He continued, “We do ask that this criticism be based on facts and not on hearsay. We would like to make clear that the Union never dismissed the idea of consent workshops, simply that we believe they would be most effective at the beginning of Michaelmas when the Union is much busier and a new group of Freshers can be reached. We hope this will have the most impact in fostering a positive culture of consent across Oxford.”

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