Thanks, but no thanks

A recent NUS survey found that a quarter of respondents had experienced unwanted sexual advances. examines how the issue affects students at the University of York

A student experience

“I would say that York is one of the places where I’ve felt the safest at night. I have no issue walking to town or walking home at night. However, I have experienced being catcalled by men when I come out of clubs, or just men talking to me in a very rude way, sometimes insulting me when I don’t react.

“I’ve had really drunk men talking to me very closely and touching my hair. Usually, those are groups of men… in those situations I feel pretty scared because I realise there is not much I can do if they decide to do something. Sometimes I get angry and tell them to fuck off but I’m generally scared they’ll be violent so most of the times I just try to ignore it.

“I feel like this is not a priority for the student unions or for the University as a whole. As someone who is involved in the college welfare team and with local associations that work with rape/sexual assault survivors, I’m appalled by the fact that very [few] members of staff are trained to deal with rape cases (or even willing to participate to anything related to it when it’s organised for them).”

However, there are professional services outside of the University that students affected by sexual assault can go to. In 2013, North Yorkshire Police opened Bridge House, a Sexual Assault Referral Centre. The centre offers services to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted.

Image: Garry Knight

Image: Garry Knight

Another student said: “I don’t think York is safe in regard to sexual violence. The hockey [club] scandal is a perfect example that there is a thriving lad culture in York and that culture is extremely insensitive to these issues. Also, quite frankly I think locals contribute heavily to this fear of being sexually abused as a lot of middle aged men think they can do anything since students are quite young.”

A male perspective

On consent classes: “I think there should be mandatory classes [because] there’s proof that they’re effective, but I think it’s also important to note that it isn’t universities’ obligation to teach students ‘life stuff’.”

Another male student commented that “it’s about time YUSU started threatening sports societies with closure or loss of funding for perpetually being misogynistic.”

The media and victim-blaming

Last year saw a substantial rise in anti-rape devices being given media attention, raising the issue that sexual assault and rape are potentially still seen as a ‘women’s problem’ that women must be responsible for preventing. However, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Guardian columnist, said: “We shouldn’t be telling victims how not to get raped, we should be teaching men not to rape, is the frequent cry. I agree. But until the world is free of rapists and those who wish to do harm, I’ll be taking the safety advice and doing the self-defence.”

While students of the University are given very basic security advice such as ‘don’t leave your door unlocked’ or ‘only use registered taxis’, this arguably provides support for the myth that sexual assault and rape are done by ‘strangers in dark alleyways’, ignoring the fact that statistics show over two-thirds of women will know their aggressor before the attack.

Campaigns on campus

While several campaigns have recently been launched to tackle sexism on campus, some students have questioned what action the University has taken.

Image: YUSU

Image: YUSU

Beth Curtis, President of University of York Feminists, said: “I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough to prevent sexual harassment or support survivors. Measures have been taken place … but those need to take place on a more systematic basis. All colleges should do [consent talks] or if not, the University should prioritise them alongside fire safety talks.”

Curtis was critical of the lad culture campaign launched by Sam Maguire, YUSU President, describing it as a “non-starter – lots of talk, very little action”. She added: “I’ve seen no zero-tolerance pledges, no advertising campaigns, no posters, no promo videos, no changes to the University harassment reporting procedure, and most of the discussion within the broader student community … has been totally lacking.”

Maguire admitted the campaign hadn’t “progressed as quickly or as effectively as hoped”. However, he said they “want to make real progress on it this term”, adding: “We are working with the colleges to set up consent workshops for all new students from next year and a training plan for all student committees. Further to this we will implement zero tolerance in our venues and launch a video campaign this term.”

When asked how she thought the University could improve its efforts, Curtis replied: “I’d like [it] to make a conscious effort to reduce the stigma around reporting harassment: it’s so intimidating to report. I think the process can and should be made more accessible. I’d also like to see more support given to survivors: this can begin through financial support to the underfunded and understaffed Open Door team, but also through changing our attitudes … towards those who have survived sexual assault and rape.”

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