Sexual assault should not be the norm for freshers

By Charlotte ‘Fozz’ Forrester

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Young people across the country have frantically bought sets of pans and new bed sheets ready for the move to university. There’s panic about whether you’re going to be able to fit all the boxes in the car and whether you will be able to tolerate your flatmates.

An unspoken panic though is the one concerned with sexual harassment and assault. Incidents are at a high during first term, and especially during Freshers Week. In amongst the socials and ice breakers, there is an epidemic of abuse going on. I met so many students when I started uni who would brief me on their buzzwords to “save them” from creeps on dancefloors and some who had even been given rape alarms in their care packages. This isn’t just paranoia though, there’s evidence that there is a massive problem of sexual violence among university students.

YouthSight polling found that half of women students and a third of men students knew of a friend or relative who has experienced intrusive sexual behaviour, ranging from groping to rape. 31% of the women said they themselves had been the victim of “inappropriate touching or groping”, as well as one in eight of the men. Over one third of the women had also indicated that they had experienced some form of assault or abuse. These levels are unacceptable, yet there is still no surge of urgent action to directly combat the issue.

Over in the USA, the term “red zone” has been used to describe the period between August and November when it is the most dangerous time for sexual assault on campus. However, Lea Hegge - a trainer for Green Dot, a non-profit that runs sexual assault prevention programs - told the Guardian that her organisation does not use the “red zone” term as the discussion around it implies that "if you only follow a list of what not to do in order to not get assaulted, you won’t… It’s putting the onus on the victim for preventing their own assault.”

The spike in sexual harassment and assault in first term is similar here in the UK, as is the need to remove the victim-blaming narrative and tackle the root of the issue. Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) needs to be of a high quality before students come to university, so that the value and meaning of consent is ingrained. SRE will only become compulsory in England in 2020, and it is not certain that all students are receiving a certain standard of education. We must hold institutions accountable for teaching young people these vital lessons.

Universities need to make sure that they are doing the most to prevent sexual assault on campus as well. In Scotland, leading institutions like Glasgow University, have trained their welcome team helpers to give support and advice to survivors of sexual assault. The University of Exeter has also run the #NeverOK campaign for several years, which involves students having to take a Consent Quiz when registering to create active engagement with the issue of sexual violence.

However, we need to make sure that actions are not tokenistic and that there is continuous interaction to keep the conversation alive throughout the academic year. We also need to make sure that every student knows where they can gain access to services if they/someone they know has been attacked. Do flatmates know how to care for someone that has undergone a potentially traumatic experience? Do students know how to contact their health and counselling services? Information needs to be easily accessible to those who may be particularly vulnerable.

All these instances of lack of formidable education; continuity in collective conversation; accessibility to services; and a perpetuated victim-blaming narrative, lead to silence from survivors. It’s reported that 43% of women who had experienced sexual assault or abuse at university did not report their ordeal, including to family and friends. This number rose further with 60% of men also saying they had not told anyone. If people do not feel safe enough to speak up, then we are all responsible in making the circumstances safer for them. University students are already dealing with unprecedented pressures and high emotions – sexual violence should not be an undeniable part of Freshers as well.