Following an investigation published by Cherwell earlier this week, an open letter has been circulated, calling on the University to collaborate with students in improving both the services and transparency of the Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Support Service.
Cherwell’s investigation revealed that the University’s Support Service also provides support to students accused of sexual harassment and violence — a provision which they do not make clear in their advice to student survivors who may be accessing the service.
Following a lengthy statement released by It Happens Here, the Student Union campaign have partnered with the independent advocacy group SpeakOut Oxford to produce the open letter, addressed to Vice Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson. The letter may be signed through a google form, and is being circulated by the groups alongside a template motion for college Common Rooms to add their signature as a collective body. As of the evening of Thursday 4th of June, the letter has received 459 signatures.
The letter calls on the university to provide “independent, victim-focused advice from a service fully dedicated to helping victims/survivors”, and criticises their decision to keep students “in the dark”. It goes on to quote anonymised accounts from the student body: one wrote, “I feel utterly disillusioned and shaken, and that I have lost a safe space”, whilst another said, “The University’s response of empty phrases … makes it even worse”.
Further to this , the organisers have appended to their letter comments from a number of their signatories (with permission), including expressions from individuals who feel “shaken and disappointed”, “appalled”, and “devastated”. One such comment addresses the University directly, writing:
“Please do more than read and reply. I hope this letter, these stories and these students’ experiences are enough evidence to bring about necessary dialogue and change within the university, both in terms of culture and policy.”
At least sixty comments have been appended to the letter.
When contacted for comment, the organisers said: “After learning about the Support Service’s lack of transparency and conflict of interest, both It Happens Here and SpeakOut wanted to take action before the end of term. Whilst these are two separate organisations, we have the same values and goals, and believe that our combined actions will have the greatest impact on reforming the University’s policy. In the space of 24 hours we formed a collaborative group and wrote both an open letter addressed to the Vice Chancellor and a template motion for JCRs and MCRs to pass in solidarity.
“Sexual assault is chronically underreported, and victims are too often left feeling isolated, ashamed, and helpless in a culture which silences their voices. The Support Service is one of the very few official University spaces intended to make victims feel supported, safe, and believed. However, in its current form the Service is failing both victims and accused, and both organisations believe that the University owes its students better.”
A spokesperson for the University said: “We are aware of this open letter and we have contacted the authors to have a constructive conversation on the concerns raised about conflict of interest, and seek their input on how we can better advertise the provision and provide reassurance to all students.
“We cannot comment on individual cases. However, sexual harassment and violence are completely unacceptable, and the University treats all allegations with the highest seriousness. We are committed to minimising all forms of sexual misconduct and continue to invest in our support and disciplinary systems to reflect this.”
If you have been affected by sexual harassment or violence, there are a number of resources available to you. As well the University’s support service, you can also contact: the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre, an independent charity in Oxford where you can also refer yourself to the university ISVA; your local GP; It Happens Here, the OUSU campaign against sexual violence; SpeakOut Oxford, an independent and student-run advocacy group; the university counselling service; and/or your college welfare team.