One in three women in the UK will experience sexual assault or abuse whilst at university. This figure may seem surprisingly high to us – maybe we think we don’t know anyone who has experienced this. Statistically, however, this is clearly not the case – our surprise more likely reflects the sad trend that women often feel to scared or ashamed to report their abuse, so we just don’t hear about it. This leads us to underestimate the severity and reality of the epidemic of university sexual violence.
So how can students on the ground play a role themselves in preventing sexual violence? One of the most powerful initiatives I have experienced is that of the Bystander Intervention programme that was running at Boston College (BC), Massachusetts, where I studied abroad during my third year. The college runs a programme called “Stand Up BC”, which provides a mandatory training session for every new student on campus. The training focuses on educating students, male and female, to look out for signals of aggressive behaviour that can harm female students around them, whether as overt as a man being pushy with a woman at a party, or a friend being subjected to controlling behaviour by her boyfriend. Students are then empowered to step in and sensitively but firmly intervene when they witness sexual violence. This culture of prosociality – engaging in behaviour which actively benefits others – is hugely beneficial for building a strong community; a campus culture where students are for each other and look out for each other.
Annaliese, an exchange student in Just Love, Glasgow, from the USA told me a little about her college’s experience of traumatic sexual violence, and how the community has responded.
“Last year, a young woman at my college was raped and murdered as she was walking back to her dorm at night. This horrific and tragic event shocked my college and the community, with this disturbing reminder that such violence against women still occurs and can be so close to home. U.S. universities are suffering the consequences for ignoring sexual violence for so long and for not stamping out rape culture earlier, but movements at universities are also occurring in response to such events.
One such movement that has spread to my university, “Not On My Campus”, involves a social media campaign of different individuals and organisations pledging to not tolerate silence over issues surrounding sexual assault on campus. Another campaign at my university, “Project Consent”, spreads awareness on the danger there is in trivializing rape culture and how we can combat it through understanding crucial ideas like consent. Finally, a unique movement has started this year at my school called “Men Can End.” This is an all-male student group that wants to combat rape culture and teach men that they have a critical role in the conversation against sexual violence towards women as well. They raise money for survivor’s networks, spread facts on sexual violence on social media, and work to educate men on the importance of their involvement in this issue. This group acknowledges that women have been trying to do such preventive work for a long time, but as men “Men Can End” is able to use their privilege to lift up these voices and bring more attention to the issue of sexual violence.”
– Annaliese Oliviera, exchange student from University of Texas at Austin.
There are a few things that accentuate the prevalence of sexual violence on US college campuses, such as athlete culture, dormitory living, and the existence of fraternities, where misogynistic and entitled attitudes can lead to abusive behaviours. The high-profile nature of campus sexual assault in the US does not mean, however, that it is a US-specific problem; the statistic I quoted at the beginning of this blog proved that quite plainly. I think in the UK we are slow on the uptake of admitting that we have this entrenched issue; we have much to learn about how we can address the threat to female students in practical ways. The success of the Bystander Intervention programme at BC convinces me that these measures need to be rolled out as the norm on at UK universities.
This year, Freshers’ helpers at the University of Glasgow received training in looking out for indicators of sexual assault during club nights; however, I would argue that this needs to be something that all Freshers are made aware of. Students need to know what jokes are not okay to make and should be called out. They need to know harmful ways to discuss women – for example in objectifying or sexually boastful ways. They need to know when a relationship tips into being unsafe, when a woman is being demeaned, belittled, when her self-worth is diminished. Students need to be taught that violence against women does not consist of physical beating, or even sexual assault – there are so many more complex ways women can be abused by people they know and trust, and they may need their friends to notice for them and know how to intervene.
I find Annaliese’s description of the all-male activist group especially inspiring. Men have a unique opportunity to call out the behaviour of other men in a way that women cannot. If men with conviction to end the injustice of sexual violence were to form a great presence amongst men on campus, I am confident this would bring about a change in a university environment that oppresses women. At Just Love, we believe in changing Christian student culture. We believe in inspiring a passionate pursuit of justice in our cities and in our world – but also in our universities, and this is an unavoidable call to action. Sexual violence is a gross affront to our loving God who created us all in His image. We must take a stand at the violence on our doorsteps; in our student unions, our bars, on our streets. I have witnessed in the culture of BC how effective the Bystander programme has been in not just raising awareness of sexual violence, but also building a student community which is passionately protective of one another, and active in seeking to stamp out any traces of misogyny and rape culture. This would be my dream for not just the University of Glasgow, but every university in the UK.
If you’re a man looking for more support and resources about how you can make a difference, you should join Restored‘s First Man Standing community! It’s made up of more than a thousand Christian men who want to play their part in ending violence against women.
If you’d like to see a Bystander Intervention programme running at your university, you need to get in touch with your Students’ Union! Universities UK, who represent all universities in the country, announced this week that they will be recommending evidence-based Bystander Intervention programmes be implemented at all universities in order to combat violence against women, harassment and hate crime. Since this is only a recommendation, SUs will need all the help they can get in persuading universities to run these programmes.
Jenny is a fourth year student of Theology and English at Glasgow, and is the Personal Coordinator of Just Love, Glasgow. She loves feminism, theology, politics, and talking about all these things incessantly.
If you are a woman who has been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and it is safe for you to seek support or advice, you can call the National Domestic Violence helpline (which is open twenty four hours a day and free to phone) on 0808 2000 247. You can also access information about local services for survivors of rape or abuse through the Rape Crisis website.
If you are a man who has been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and it is safe for you to seek support or advice, you can call the Men’s Advice Line (which is open Monday to Friday, 9am til 5pm) on 0808 801 0327.
If you’re a man who wants help to stop being violent or abusive, you can get help to stop by calling the Respect Phoneline (which is open Monday to Friday, 9am til 5pm) on 0808 802 4040.