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Student sexual violence: ‘leaving each university to deal with it isn’t working’


When Lindsay’s friends dropped her off a block from her home in a cab after a night out, they expected that the Oxford law student would return there safely. But Lindsay, then in her second year, never made it to her home that night in October 2011.

When she came to in the morning, she was in the bed of a stranger that, it turned out, was about 30 minutes’ walk from her home. The man began to sexually assault her. He told her he had found her wandering the streets, lost and cold.

“When I woke up, I was completely out of it,” said Lindsay. “It was surreal. I didn’t process what was going on. I was completely nonresponsive.

“That still haunts me, but apparently it’s not uncommon to seize up. I felt disconnected and dissociated, like I wasn’t in my own body.

“The only self-defence I could muster was saying: ‘Don’t come in me.’”

She remembers someone on top of her, having sex with her, pushing him off, waking up and feeling confused. Later, she wondered if she had been drugged. Yet, amid her confusion, her hazy memory and the missing details, she knew she had been violated.

Lindsay, who was “horribly drunk” after a breakup, can recall only fragments of the night before, but her experience is all too frequent. A study by the National Union of Students in 2010 showed that one in seven students were victims of serious sexual assault or serious physical violence.

A Guardian investigation in May found fewer than half of Britain’s most elite universities were monitoring the extent of sexual violence against students, and one in six said they did not have specific guidelines for students on how to report such allegations.

Following that report, scores of students got in touch to report allegations of sexual violence at university towns, where Rape Crisis groups say there is a a “hit or miss” approach to dealing with sexual violence.

“At first I felt really stupid and I blamed myself for being drunk enough for this to have happened,” said Lindsay. “The stereotype of stranger rape, down a dark alley, is so damaging. But, academically, I know I was in no state to consent to sex. I was too incapacitated.

“I know the law, and I was raped. If you come across somebody who is lost and cold, then your response should not be to sexually assault them.”

With the help of a friend from the US, where universities have a legal obligation to investigate a sexual assault, she combed her institution’s website for support. “There was nothing like that,” Lindsay said. “There is still nothing on sexual assault on the student welfare counselling page.”

Lindsay’s friend took her to an emergency doctor, where she was given the morning-after pill and anti-HIV medication. She emailed the counselling service for an appointment. But once there, she said, a counsellor told her: “Well, it’s not your fault, and it’s not his fault either. I want to talk to you about why you were so drunk.”

Lindsay said: “I found the whole thing to be deeply traumatic. I was so upset, I threw up.”

Taken together, the stories of those who contacted the Guardian provide a remarkable insight into how universities’ policies and practices to combat sexual violence are failing in terms of advice and support to students, let alone action to deter sex attackers.

Susuana Amoah, women’s officer at the National Union of Students, said: “It’s really disheartening, but not surprising, to hear that students reporting sexual assault are being met with victim-blaming and poor advice.

“Many students don’t even make it to the reporting stage because of the lack of clarity around the complaints and disciplinary procedures available to victims of sexual harassment and assault by universities.”

The NUS, which has examined the policies of 35 higher education institutions in England, Wales and Scotland on sexual violence, is expected to publish its report today. It is calling for Universities UK to develop national guidance to tackle the problem.

Some of the 50 students who contacted the Guardian reported historical allegations, although many told of recent experiences. They told harrowing stories of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, in one case, attempted suicide, that followed their alleged attacks.

Some had dropped out, failed to obtain expected grades or taken a longer time to obtain their degrees.

Only one reported a positive response, and that was from a student union. Most were women, although at least one was a man. Many spoke of being blamed for the attacks on them, others of a failure to provide support or practical help such as counselling or time off from their studies.

What they had in common was how alone they felt in being left to cope with the most traumatic experience of their young lives.

Lindsay, rare among alleged survivors of rape in that she did report her attack to police, as well as to her institution, said she was let down by both authorities.

Home Office figures show that only 15% of sexual assault survivors report to police. When they do report, only a fraction of alleged assaults make it to prosecution. Research by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2015 showed that only 28% of alleged rapes of adults and children in England and Wales reported to police were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The investigation into Lindsay’s attack was so flawed that in March this year she received an apology from Thames Valley police for their failure to properly investigate.

The reality of sexual violence on campus, where the alleged perpetrators and victims often live and work in close proximity, and where survivors are unlikely to report to police, means that universities are the front line in terms of reporting and support. Many have numerous policies on such issues. Yet, according to those who spoke to the Guardian, they are not working.

Asked what was most difficult for her following the alleged assault, Lindsay cited a meeting with her university counselling team six months afterwards. She had instigated it to complain and to make suggestions on how they might be extra careful to ensure victims would not feel blame in the future

The response, she said, was disbelief. She said they told her: “Perhaps you are wrong because you were a bit upset? Are you sure you were remembering correctly?” Lindsay added: “It was profoundly upsetting. It was remarkable they were so defensive. It makes me angry to this day.”

Each of the three survivors the Guardian spoke to at length, whose alleged assaults happened in the past four years, spoke of a failure in their institution’s duty of pastoral care.

“I was a total mess and didn’t know what to do with myself or cope,” said Lindsay. Four years on, she was continuing with her studies but it was “still hard”.

Lindsay considers herself lucky to have a supportive supervisor who arranged time off; friends who stood by her; and a knowledge of the law on consent, which gave her the confidence to go to the police. There had been improvements at the university since her attack, four years ago, she said, but they were small ones.

“Whether someone receives a positive or negative response seems to depend entirely on luck as to who you disclose to.” Sexual violence against students was “incredibly common”.

When contacted by the Guardian for a response, Oxford University said that it would not comment on confidential counselling to individual students.

It stressed the professionalism of its counsellors and its guidance on validating a victim’s experience without judgment. The university, it said, offered “strong professional support and counselling to anyone bringing forward a complaint”.

Much sexual violence at universities involves alcohol, consumed by the perpetrator, the victim or both, adding a layer of complexity to an offence around which many misconceptions still lie.

Dianne Whitfield, chief officer at Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, where 10% of their clients are students, said that it was crucially important that the first response was supportive.

“If that first response is negative or judgmental, it could cause huge problems in their mental state,” she said. “It shuts them down. They are already blaming themselves for not foreseeing that a person may be a sexual predator.”

Whitfield said that because of the victims’ tendency to blame themselves, counsellors needed training in how to offer support without judgment or prejudice. But the students who spoke to the Guardian appeared to experience the opposite.

Caroline, a student at Cambridge University, who alleges she was sexually assaulted in October 2014, was alarmed at how “dismissive” her tutors were when she turned to them for help.

Her alleged assault was by a close friend. She had been at a party and he insisted on walking her home. Once there, they kissed consensually. But she made clear she did not want it to go further. “I turned away and said no,” she said. “He continued as if I had said nothing. I squeezed my legs tightly together, shut my mouth and crossed my arms.”

She added: “He stayed all night. I asked him to leave several times and he ignored me. When he finally got up to go, he tried to give me a long kiss goodbye but I wouldn’t open my mouth and started crying.”

The alleged attack had a profound effect on Caroline. She said she was so distraught her doctor prescribed antidepressants. She could not eat or sleep. She was scared to go to lectures, in case she bumped into her assailant.

She sought advice and support, but found the response of her tutors compounded rather than alleviated her distress.

Caroline first sought the help of a female tutor.

“She was quite sympathetic, but asked lots of questions which made me feel like I was to blame. Why I didn’t fight harder. She couldn’t understand why a close friend would act in that way. I said I wanted to leave university and leave the country and she told me I was being dramatic.”

The female tutor said she would report it to a more senior tutor, Caroline said. She ended up telling four different members of staff, three of whom were “fairly dismissive”.

“It wasn’t a pleasant experience,” said Caroline. “They were not malicious, they were trying to be kind. The second tutor – a typical Oxbridge academic – I spoke to was upset that the college didn’t know what to do. He was laughing at the situation and how ridiculous it was. He said something like: ‘Oh God, what are we going to do?’ But I was suicidal. And having him laugh in my face felt like a total betrayal.”

When contacted for comment, Cambridge University forwarded a statement from the college where Caroline was studying. It said: “The college will support and assist the victim of any harassment or assault.

“However, allegations of rape and other sexual assaults, as with any behaviour which would constitute a serious criminal offence, can only be investigated by the police and considered by the prosecuting authorities. Because of the nature of the crime the college cannot undertake an independent investigation into allegations of sexual assault.”

A series of freedom of information requests from the Guardian to elite universities reveals that this policy, to refer students to police, is common. Some go further, even insisting that student survivors of sexual assault report to police, if any action is to be taken by the university. This is against advice from Rape Crisis and other groups.

Sarah Green, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which is lobbying for universities to better investigate sexual violence, said specialist organisations would never prescribe reporting to police. Green said: “There is an issue about respect for the victim. You don’t tell women what they should do either for themselves or others. Women are known to their attackers, so there’s a whole load of decisions going on before that one.”

Ellie Muffitt, from Harrogate, Yorkshire, a freelance journalist who has waived her anonymity to write about her alleged sexual assault at Manchester University, described the lack of control she felt when forced to go to the police at the age of 18, five years ago: “I remember how overwhelmed and vulnerable I felt when someone in a position of power was telling me that only the police could deal with it and, if the university was going to do anything, I would have to go along with that.”

Muffitt, who suffered PTSD and dropped out of university after a court case in which her alleged assailant was acquitted, believes there should be national guidelines on how universities should respond to sexual violence allegations. “Leaving each university to decide how to deal with it isn’t working,” said Muffitt.

Faye, a PhD student at a redbrick university, had been locked out of her building after saying goodbye to friends after a girls’ night in, in May 2013, when a male student appeared. Somehow, they ended up in her flat. She had been drinking and was so drunk she could not stand up. But, like Lindsay, she had no doubt in her mind that what happened next was rape.

Two days later, after a traumatic visit to hospital for a barrage of sexual health tests, Faye told her PhD supervisor about the attack. Her response was casual, Faye said. “She said: ‘I had an undergraduate student who something similar happened to and she ended up taking leave of absence. You can always do that,’” said Faye. “I was never offered any kind of personal support or professional advice or directed to a source of external support.”

Later, her supervisor offered her a retrospective leave of absence for a few weeks. But the trauma Faye suffered was “all consuming” for two years, she said. “I was having panic attacks, waking up screaming, thinking that someone was at the bottom of my bed.”

The relationship Faye had with her supervisor became strained. “My progress stalled. She told me she was very concerned about my lack of progress, and made increasing demands on me.”

No mention was made again of Faye’s alleged attack, or how she was coping.

“The indifference of the university still stings and is a factor which has led to the utter demotivation I felt towards my academic work. As an institution, they have done the minimum they could do. I suppose their options are limited if you don’t go to the police.

“In terms of my supervisor, she’s a fallible human being. But she hadn’t been trained. You could argue that a PhD supervisor has a pastoral responsibility.”

Faye, who did not want her university to be named, for fear of putting further strain on her relationship with her supervisor, said she was reluctant to go to the police, because of the low chances of conviction and the fact she would have to live with being his accuser.

“What’s happened changed everything. The world is a different place now, and I am a different person. I’m still trying to come to terms with that, minus the support of my university. They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Names have been changed.



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