Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sally Williams on the rise of sexual assaults on British campuses

There is certainly something not to like going on in many British universities. In May, three students from the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester were arrested in connection with an investigation into alleged sexual assaults. They have been suspended while the case is investigated. In the same month, Benjamin Sullivan, the former president of the Oxford Union debating society, was cleared of rape charges, but admitted in an interview that the prevalence of rowdy, male-dominated drinking groups affected the way undergraduates “view women, view sex”.

The extent of sexual assaults on British campuses emerged four years ago when the NUS published Hidden Marks: A Study Of Women Students’ Experiences Of Harassment, Stalking, Violence And Sexual Assault. One in seven respondents had experienced some form of serious physical or sexual assault, the report stated, and more than two-thirds had experienced some kind of verbal or nonverbal harassment in or around university. (The latest NUS survey revealed that 37% of women and 12% of men who responded said they had faced unwelcome sexual advances.) Being groped, having someone put their hand up your skirt at a club and sexual comments were so ubiquitous, the NUS concluded, they were almost a fact of life.
report last year, by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics, stated that female students in full-time education are at higher risk of sexual violence than the general female population. A particularly hazardous time, experts believe, is freshers’ week, when newcomers are invited to a raft of social events. “They are extremely vulnerable,” says Dr Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University and coauthor of That’s What She Said, a 2013 report on women students’ experience in higher education. “Some of them are away from home for the first time, are trying to make friends and don’t know the campus, don’t know the city.”
“I recall one police officer describing freshers’ week as ‘killing fields’ for sexual violence,” says Dianne Whitfield, chief officer at Coventry rape and sexual abuse centre, which gets referrals from the counselling services at Warwick and Coventry.
Figures for sexual assaults on campus aren’t collected nationally, and this is a category of crime prone to underreporting. Earlier this month, Maria Marcello (not her real name), a student at Oxford University, wrote a blog in which she described how she had been sexually assaulted while passed-out drunk. She’d invited some friends over to teach her poker, one of whom brought two companions. Poker turned into a drinking game, and Marcello was so inebriated she lost consciousness.
“I was put to bed, but I don’t remember anything. Then a guy I didn’t know had sex with me,” she wrote on Medium, a site where people share ideas and stories. She had no memory of the crime, but she did have DNA evidence (clothes, bedsheets and a used condom). Nevertheless, she was advised by the police to drop the charges, because it would be “one person’s word against another’s”. Whatever had unfolded while she was unconscious was her responsibility, in other words. This is a stand echoed by Mary Jane Mowat, a former judge who in August declared that“rape conviction statistics will not improve until women stop getting so drunk”. “Mowat is right that rape conviction statistics are lower than they should be,” Marcello argues. “However, the criminal justice system is to blame, not drunk women.”..
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There are new ways to disconcert women and put them down. “An environment has flourished among students that is highly sexualised and highly sexist,” says Holly Dustin, director of End Violence Against Women, “and that does seem to be worse than maybe a decade or so ago.”
Then, male university students were divided into camps. Among them, crudely put, there were sensitive, arty types, who liked indie music and baggy cardigans, and “rugger buggers”, who were loud, aggressively masculine and devoted to sport. Now, though, we have a new type: “the Lad”, who is hyper-macho and makes jokes about rape. He is, according to journalist Clive Martin, known for his Big Night Out… series for Vice magazine, “the anti-scholar, the beer-swilling, banter-puking cuckoo in the scholarly nest… The Lad is far less cuddly than his predecessor. He’s not selling a bit of hash on the side to finance the buying of yet more Che Guevara and Pulp Fiction posters. The modern male yooni-going dunderhead buys his drugs and his degree online, so most of his free time is spent charging drunkenly around whatever provincial British city he’s been assigned to, as if it were his own personal adventure playground.”
Laddism is not new. It had a particular resonance in the 1990s, when there was a lot of talk about political correctness and people feeling pressured into avoiding causing offence. It found a voice through magazines such as Loaded, and later Nuts and Zoo. “The lads in the 90s are the lads of the printed press,” says Isabel Young, research associate at the Centre for Gender Studies, Sussex University, and coauthor of That’s What She Said. “They basically co-opted working-class Jack-the-lad and made it a middle-class form of ironic enjoyment.
“But what makes the lad of today fascinating is the internet,” Young continues. “It’s more far-reaching, but also more performative, so what they are doing is taking the attributes associated with masculinity and taking [them] to the very boundary of what’s acceptable and beyond.”
Young means websites such as UniLad, founded in 2010 by Alex Partridge, then a student at Oxford Brookes University, “as the number one university student lads’ magazine and guide to getting laid”. In 2012, UniLad was censored for an article on “sexual mathematics” in which the author stated: “If the girl you’ve taken for a drink… won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.”
Following a public outcry, the site closed briefly to review its editorial policies. These days, it’s cheerful and irreverent, but also vulgar. It has a vast following – 1.6m likes on Facebook – and a narrow view of women. Take, for example, a recent photograph of a policewoman, captioned: “Holy shit. This policewoman is HOTTTTTT. And yes, she’s actually real…”
Laddish behaviour has taken hold in parts of campuses across the country. “Student union events, themed events, websites, pub crawls, sporting activities, drinking societies,” Phipps says. “It’s the most popular, most privileged men on campus who are engaging in this.”
But surely much of this sort of behaviour happens on the sidelines, I say to an informal focus group from Cambridge University (three undergraduates, three postgraduates; four female, two male). Can’t you just ignore it? “No, actually it feels we are on the sidelines,” replies Lauren Steele, women’s officer of the students’ union. “In the first year, I went to the swaps [where men- and women-only drinking societies get together] and bops [social events organised by each college]. I went to Caesarian Sunday [a drinking event] and Suicide Sunday [held on the Sunday immediately after the end of the summer term]. I’ve been to the two clubs in town. It’s not like I’m some militant rad feminist. I’ve been to them all and know exactly what happens. And it’s not fun, and there aren’t other things to do. Instead of going to the pub, we have dinner and throw our food around and get wasted on three bottles of wine. Good Pants, Bad Pants is a game where you have to get up and show everyone your pants, to see who is wearing the sexiest pair. You arrive at university and think, right, so this is the way I make friends.”
So what has changed? .. read more: