Oxford is failing survivors of sexual violence

By now, many of us have read the article ‘I Was Raped At Oxford University. Police Pressured Me Into Dropping Charges’, written by an Oxford student under the pseudonym Maria Marcello. The first post on a new blog, it details the author’s experience of being raped by someone in her college, and the process of reporting the incident. It raises several issues, including the way Oxfordshire police handled the case, which included a receptionist who “insisted on me giving details in front of everybody in the waiting room”. However, another huge problem is evident in Maria’s experience: the University and colleges are failing to adequately respond to sexual violence claims.

The collegiate system should make it easier to be heard. In other universities, the central authority which serves thousands of students is the only place to turn, whereas here we have staff who are there to help a few hundred people exclusively. In theory, one might hope that this means they have plenty of time to support students. In practice, however, colleges are inconsistent in the ways they handle sexual violence complaints. In Maria’s case, they proved unhelpful. In her post, she asserts: “My Oxford college, when I spoke to its professional welfare staff, largely ignored me; the guy who raped me received a minor reprimand and no further repercussions.” I spoke to her over email to find out more, and she told me: “It happened midway through Michaelmas (end of 5th I think), I spoke to welfare several times in the rest of that term and during Hilary. They basically said there wasn’t anything they could do and to not put myself in situations where I was near him.” It would seem from this that colleges are practically able to ignore complainants, and, even worse, are placing the onus on victims to remove themselves from shared spaces when their attacker is present. When the attacker is at the same college, this turns what should be a safe-haven into a threatening place to be. Your college should be somewhere you can live, eat, go to the library, and socialise without feeling like you have to leave when someone else enters the room. Maria described to me several occasions when she had been unable to use college facilities or socialise due to her attacker’s presence. “People were obviously left with the choice of hanging around with him or hanging around with me, and without me being able to explain the situation to them (I barely told anybody about this) they generally chose hanging around with him (mainly because I left).”

Maria’s original blogpost, which has now garnered over 11,000 hits

The college’s response was poor, and Maria even suspects that they saw no reason to intervene since her academic work was still on track. “I think Oxford generally has a problem with being too work-oriented.” It is truly disheartening that an establishment with a duty of care seems to think this only applies to looking after their students’ grades. Colleges ought to be concerned with the safety, health (mental and physical), and general wellbeing of everyone in the college community. Sadly, Maria’s story is not an anomaly. A quick scroll through OUSU’s It Happens Here Tumblr page will throw up several similar examples. A common theme seems to be that college staff simply do not know how to proceed. One anonymous contributor says that, while at first “people who mattered believed me and wanted to help”, the process of reporting a rape to college came to very little, and they “had no specific guidelines on how to deal with sexual violence or post-traumatic stress disorder”. Like Maria, this survivor just wanted to feel safe in their college’s communal areas, but there was no process set in place.

It is imperative that college authorities are ready to deal with sexual violence cases. According to an NUS survey, 25 per cent of female students experience sexual assault in their time at university. That’s a huge number, and doesn’t even take people who aren’t women into account. It is therefore a severe oversight for colleges not to know how to respond. Now, I want to make it clear that I do not agree with handing all responsibility for punishing an attacker over to a place of education. The police and the courts have to play their role, and I will leave it to someone better-informed to detail the failures of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, if we allow universities or colleges to make rulings on these cases, we could end up with a mess like we’ve seen in the American system, where 76 colleges are under investigation for mishandling sexual violence complaints. These powerful establishments have all too often decided to protect their own reputation by sweeping claims under the carpet at the expense of survivors. At Columbia, activists resorted to writing the names of alleged rapists on the walls of bathrooms, so exasperated were they by the university’s ineffectual methods.

PHOTO / David Masters on Flickr
PHOTO / David Masters on Flickr

So what can we do? Well, on a university level, things are already being done. Speaking in response to Maria’s post, Eden Tanner, Graduate Women’s Officer said: “OUSU has been working closely with the University on a revised Harassment Policy, which will hopefully come into force during Michaelmas term. This is no way mitigates the terrible experience of this student, but our hope is that the revised policy will provide a stronger and more reliable framework for supporting survivors of sexual violence in future.” This is incredibly important for a number of reasons. Not only does it set the standard for how sexual violence should be treated within the University, but for such a well-known establishment as Oxford to concede a change in policy could be significant on a national scale.

This does not, however, solve all problems instantly. The individual harassment policies of colleges are a patchwork of varying standards, confusing clauses and sometimes total absence of anything addressing sexual violence. WomCam now has a harassment working group, which aims to change college policies one at a time. Caitlin Tickell is the group’s creator, and she “was utterly appalled by the college response to Maria’s case”. She goes on to say: “It has to be impressed to the colleges and the University as a whole that the handling of this case was completely unacceptable and contributes to a culture where perpetrators of rape can face little-to-no repercussions, I really hope that the college in question conducts an investigation into this case. Many colleges have inadequate harassment policies, and few have specific policies for sexual violence, this is something that the WomCam harassment working group is planning to tackle head on next year.” Not only should colleges have clear policies in place, but the process of reporting an incident of sexual violence should be obvious to staff and students alike.

We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to survivors of sexual violence, whose university experience has turned into a constant struggle to evade their attackers. We cannot allow our University or our colleges to shrug their shoulders and say “there’s nothing we can do”. We cannot stay silent and let perpetrators of sexual violence think they can get away with their actions.