“I feel as though I’m trying to give words to what is really a succession of screams in my head. And I don’t know how you convert screaming into words.”
That was what I wrote last term, nearly seven months after I was sexually assaulted on my year abroad. About a month afterwards, I emailed the relevant authorities in Oxford to tell them what had happened and to suggest a change to the support available to students on their year abroad so that, if any other Oxford students experienced something similar, they might not feel so abandoned.
I did not receive a reply to my email. My fears were confirmed: this was not a big deal, I was overreacting, and I should have been able to cope on my own. I felt isolated, and in an attempt to break out of this prison in my head, I wrote about my experience. The responses I had from so manyother students telling me about their experiences revealed to me that I was far from alone. On one level it was comforting to be believed and understood, but on another level I was appalled. How is it still possible that bodily autonomy and the right to freedom from violence are so little respected?
But even then I did not realise the extent of the problem in Oxford. Now, for the first time, we have comprehensive statistics revealing the level of sexual violence experienced by women at Oxford University. And they are shocking.
Last Trinity Term, the former OUSU VP for Women, Anna Bradshaw, conducted a survey in collaboration with It Happens Here, OUSU’s campaign against sexual violence, which investigated women in Oxford’s experiences of sexual violence. More people responded to this survey than any previous OUSU survey ever. The results of this survey showed that 69.8 per cent of respondents had been sexually assaulted. Nearly 90 per cent had experienced street harassment. 72.6 per cent had experienced other forms of sexual harassment. Only 48 per cent felt safe on the streets of Oxford at night. The most common perpetrators of street harassment were people unknown to the woman, while the most common perpetrators of assault and other forms of sexual harassment were fellow students. The most common places for sexual harassment andassault to occur were public spaces. The most common places for serious sexual assault and rape to occur were inside of colleges and student homes.
For the most part our statistics agree with NUS’s statistics on sexual violence gathered from a number of UK universities, giving us confidence that we can trust these results. The result that jumps out as being different, however, is our result for sexual assault. The NUS average is at 25 per cent of women at university being assaulted, significantly lower than our figure of 69.8 per cent. Part of the reason for this apparent discrepancy may be the wording of the question in Oxford’s survey, which did not mention the phrase sexual assault but instead used a description of assault, asking how many women had “been touched in a sexual way without their consent.” Many people are assaulted without realising that that is what they have experienced. The higher figure in our survey might be due to a number of women answering yes to that question who would not have considered themselves as having been assaulted. It should also be stressed here that anyone can experience sexual violence regardless of their gender and thus these statistics only reveal part of the picture. It is hoped that there can be a survey of men’s experiences of sexual violence in Oxford University in the near future.
This survey has given It Happens Here and the OUSU VP for Women, Lucy Delaney, the proof that we need in order to take our struggle to the top ofthe university. There can be no denying now that sexual harassment and violence is something that must be confronted in Oxford.
On one level, we as students have the power to make changes; the publicity work done by groups including, but not limited to, It Happens Here and WomCam, is slowly but surely helping to create a positive atmosphere in which it is more and more accepted that survivors must be listened to and believed, and in which perpetrators must not be excused. The consent workshops that many of you will have taken part in over the last fewweeks are all part of a move to show that no form of sexual harassment or violence can ever be condoned.
On another level though, we are dependent on the support of those at the top of the university in order to bring about the institutional change that is so necessary. Yes, we have a strong network of well-trained peer supporters at this university, but we are not counsellors. We are young people without the qualifications or the experience needed to deal with this ourselves. We need proper channels set up so that when someone does disclose an instance of sexual violence, they are directed to proper services, like the University’s counselling service. We need channels that are secure enough to stop anyone from falling down the cracks. I do not believe that I am the only person to disclose an instance of sexual violencewithout receiving an appropriate response.
Similarly, as students it is almost impossible for us to bring perpetrators to justice ourselves. We need lawyers, which often means we need money, and we need the emotional support of trained professionals to work with us through the process of a conviction. We need the University’s support in this. Again, there needs to be clear and transparent channels for this to occur.
What we need most of all right now, though, is for people – students and academics – to take note. We need you to care. Sexual violence happens here. Right here. In our rooms, in our JCRs, our MCRs, our bars, on our streets. We are saying no more, not again. It is our right to live free from sexual violence. It is our right to bodily autonomy.
Shortly after I was assaulted, a man sat in front of me and told me that sexual violence didn’t happen. He said that sometimes girls would experience some non-violent street harassment, but that it never went further than that. We want people to open their eyes. Because it happens to us, it happens a lot, and it happens here.