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One month of survivor’s stories: Why St Andrew’s students are still sharing their abuse

Stories of sexual violence on university campuses have exploded in recent years, but largely in the USA. Now a group of students at a Scottish university are determined to be heard. Sophie Gallagher speaks to them

Friday 14 August 2020 17:20 BST
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"He was my friend. We all went out together. I was very very visibly drunk and can’t remember even going out. He remembers. I woke up in his bed the next morning with no idea where I was to be told we had sex. I then proceeded to get harassed by his girlfriend.” - 2 July

“I was raped the third week of my first year. My rapist was already solidly part of my group of friends and because I was so new and so afraid he remained part of my life for years. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it, much less seek help until the summer before my third year. I am about to begin my final year at St Andrews and I am still dealing with the impact of what happened to me every day.” - 2 July

“In first year a guy who offered to walk me back to my halls forced himself into my room and raped me. He's going to be a fourth year now and I still see him all the time. I wish I could have prevented it from happening to someone else but it was Freshers and I didn't know what to do." - 2 July

***

On 2 July an anonymous Instagram account appeared overnight. It called itself the St Andrew’s Survivors, with the slogan “we see you and we stand with you” and the expressed goal to “expose the reality of sexual abuse at [the] university as well as empower survivors to share their stories”. On the first day it posted 11 stories of assault. On the second day, 31 more.

The stories cover the full spectrum of sexual abuse; from violent rape to stealthing [the condom being non-consensually removed during sex], rape jokes made by supposed friends, spiked drinks and victims being so intoxicated they could never have given meaningful consent. Each post has garnered hundreds of likes and comments of support and validation.

Over a month later the account has shared nearly 70 stories and attracted 6,000 followers. The account says it is “not intended to be trial by media or vigilante justice” (no alleged perpetrators are named in the post and nor are the accusers) and is instead a space for survivors to share their experiences, “which we are rarely given the chance to do,” it adds.

Alex*, who has been given a pseudonym to protect her identity, is the 20-year-old founder of the account. She is a current student at St Andrew’s university, just about to enter her fourth year. Alex, who experienced sexual violence in her childhood, says that for many years she didn’t recognise the abuse she had been subject to; the first time she plucked up the courage to talk about it was many years later at a feminist workshop in front of a room of strangers.

This is partly what inspired Alex to create the anonymous account. She had also been watching similar accounts at American universities and public schools, like @EndRapeOnCampus or ‘Assaulters at RU’, which detailed allegations at Rutgers University in New Jersey. As well as accounts started in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which anonymously detailed racial abuse, like the @86dlistpdx, an account which details harassment and abuse in the Portland restaurant industry. Alex decided the same format could work for survivors of sexual abuse.

“I was so tired of hearing stories like these being treated like casual gossip and hearing the same names over and over without any repercussions for the alleged offenders,” she tells The Independent. “I want the students of St Andrews to be aware of the prevalence of sexual violence in our town. I realised it was time to bring this endemic issue to light.”

The spotlight has been raised on sexual violence in higher education in recent years. In 2016, Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was given a six-month sentence for three counts of felony sexual assault – more than one million people signed a petition outraged at the leniency of the sentence. In 2018, a fraternity president at Baylor University, Texas, Jacob Anderson, was charged with four counts of sexual assault but did not serve jail time after a plea deal was set.

In the five years to 2019 there were more than 1,600 reported rapes or sexual assaults on university campuses...

On this side of the Atlantic, an independent inquiry found that Sussex University failed its duty of care to an assault victim, when it appeared to prioritise protecting the university in the face of legal action over the victim’s wellbeing. Posters about a consent campaign at Newcastle university were vandalised with the phrase “not all people who claim to have been raped have been – some lie” and ‘#stopblamingmen’. And women at Roehampton University protested the lack of support for assault victims by hanging their knickers around campus after a student was assaulted and said she had nowhere to go.

In May 2019 the scale of the problem really came to a head in what came to be known as the Warwick rape chat scandal. The case related to a Facebook “group chat” in which male students sent each other sexually violent messages about fellow female students, including graphic descriptions of gang rape and genital mutilation. Although extreme, it wasn’t an isolated incident.

In 2019, a Channel 4 News report found there had been an 82 per cent increase in reported rapes or sexual assaults in the 12 months prior. Those universities which provided figures showed a rise – from 65 in 2014, to 626 in 2018. In the five years to 2019 there were more than 1,600 reported rapes or sexual assaults on campus. And if other offences are included the tally rises to 1,900 – with the highest number of allegations at East Anglia University, followed by Cambridge. But in non-official records (ie. not relying on university records) the numbers is higher. Organisation Revolt Sexual Assault, conducted a survey with The Student Room and found almost two thirds (62 per cent) of students had experienced sexual violence in UK universities. Only one in ten had reported.

Universities UK, the collective voice of the UK’s institutions, established a taskforce to tackle sexual violence in 2016. It concluded in a report that: “Universities, although they might be quite different in their ethos, structure and approach, have a clear responsibility to respond appropriately to any student or staff member who experiences sexual violence.” And suggested that universities might want to adopt a number of measures to improve current provisions. At least 20 UK universities, including St Andrew’s, do now run consent workshops. The NUS also set up a ‘I Heart Consent’ initiative to raise awareness and discussion.

But UK universities have been repeatedly accused of failing victims. A report by Oxford University’s dedicated support service, launched in 2018, revealed a fifteenfold rise in sexual harassment and violence allegations in the space of a year. A BBC investigation found universities received more than 700 allegations of sexual misconduct in the 2018-19 academic year. At the same time, universities have been using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence students from publicising complaints. Over 300 such NDAs have been used since 2016.

Chris Skidmore, universities minister, said in February: “This is nothing short of an abuse of power. I have spoken against the use of NDAs on staff, but it is staggering that some universities have used them against students.”

Founded in 1413, St Andrews is Scotland’s oldest university and the third-oldest university in the UK, after Oxford and Cambridge. Notable alumni include the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who met during their university years, and former first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. It is a leading Russell Group university, and still retains old traditions like the May Dip (students running into the north Sea at sunrise) and Raisin Monday (an annual foam fight). For the academic year 2019-2020 the university had 7,442 undergraduates and 1,782 postgraduates.

In 2018 a St Andrew’s graduate referred to as Miss M won a landmark civil action against a man who raped her on a night out in 2013 – she did not win a criminal case. But Miss M has subsequently been at great pains to speak about the help given to her by the university student services during her ordeal. So why, three years later, has a group of St Andrew’s students further taken matters into their own hands?

Georgia*, 20 and Siobhan*, 19, who help Alex to run St Andrew’s Survivors spoke to The Independent via an anonymised Zoom call. Both, like Alex, have their own history of surviving sexual violence and found themselves drawn to the Instagram account after Alex posted saying she was struggling with the emotional burden of processing submissions alone. Both offered a helping hand. Now they too, read through stories (there have been more than 200 to date) and offer support to those who come forward.

At university, we have hundreds if not thousands of people experiencing sex and relationships for the first time...

“A lot of this is not unique to St Andrews,” says Siobhan, “this happens at every university in the world but that doesn’t make it normal or ok.” Both women believe that the university context provides the perfect storm of factors for high levels of sexual violence; leaving home for the first time, losing old support networks, a heavy drinking and hook-up culture, and continued stigma around reporting. Alex agrees: “At university, we have hundreds if not thousands of people experiencing sex and relationships for the first time.”

Siobhan says: “There is a lot of normalising of rape culture, and rape jokes, normalising of giving consent while intoxicated, or making fun out of a situation where someone might not feel comfortable. We see in lots of submissions people feeling dissatisfied with the response when they tell friends or peers.”

Georgia says that rape culture is so embedded in universities that often people do not even realise what they have been through is wrong. “You can be told something is wrong and not fully recognise it – because it is so normal. “A lot of these stories remain hidden behind drunk sex".

In a statement to The Independent, in response to the account, St Andrews said: “We again repeat our plea for any student who has experienced sexual misconduct to report details to the University or to the Police. We remain ready and willing to support them.” On 14 July Police Scotland said it was aware of the reports online and was working with the university.

But Georgia says: “A lot of the time people do not feel empowered to come forward via official channels when they have to attach it to their name. Coming forward is being made easier by a climate of social change but people do not always feel comfortable.”

Siobhan agrees: “There is no doubt in my mind the anonymity [of the account] is necessary. Unfortunately we live in a society where people only feel comfortable coming forward if they are anonymous.” In English law anyone alleging they are the victim of rape or sexual assault is entitled to anonymity, but as past cases have shown, it is not always possible to stop accusers’ details being leaked on social media.

Alex agrees: “As many of our posts have illustrated, when people share these experiences with friends, family, university staff or even law enforcement, the response is not always helpful for the survivor. I wanted to provide a platform where survivors know that they are protected from judgement or questioning, and that their words are at the forefront of the conversation.”

Students have seen such judgement play out in the legal system; in 2018 hundreds of university students, notably at Oxford University, protested wearing only underwear after an Irish lawyer held up a lacy thong, worn by a 17-year-old rape victim, in open court to imply that the victim had agreed to sex. The defendant was acquitted. But in order for due process to take place, a victim needs to come forward and be on the record.

St Andrews, Scotland
St Andrews, Scotland

Alex and her team have been trying to work alongside the university to make concrete change. But in an Instagram post on 29 July the account says an “impasse” has been reached in the conversations. It details three primary reasons for this: the university appointing a mediator who is not a third party but employed by St Andrew’s and therefore, they believe, cannot claim to be without bias, the university, the women say, has also requested that the team agree to a clause of confidentiality and not disclose the contents of meetings, and the university not giving a public apology for the issue “of sexual abuse in our community”.

But a spokesperson for the university told The Independent that survivors have “categorically not been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. “They have been invited to engage in a community dialogue, which will offer a range of student groups and societies, including elected student representatives, equal and fair opportunity to discuss and shape policy."

The spokesperson said they appointed the Head of Mediation and Wellbeing – who is also the policy lead for gender-based violence – to the meetings because of her expertise in trauma and communication, and the university Proctor had also offered to meet with the team more recently. “It is self-evidently untrue to say that we have insisted on confidentiality or mediation as the only form of communication,” says the spokesperson.

Only three per cent of rape claims in London end in conviction...

“Our head of mediation has reached out to the Survivors to offer to support them to contribute, with the aim of ensuring they are safe, secure, and empowered to connect. The group has rejected this offer, and it is regrettable that they have misrepresented the University’s position."

For now, the team says it will continue to publish victim accounts “until someone stops us”. “I hope more than anything that this account has changed minds or raised awareness [so] if someone sees something happening on a night out they won’t be scared to call it out, or if one of their friends comes to them with a story, they will be believed unequivocally," says Alex.

For the victims it is still not always as black and white as coming forward to officially report. Last month the UK victim’s commissioner Dame Vera Baird acknowledged that society as a whole is effectively seeing the “decriminalisation of rape” as there is a “catastrophic decline in rape prosecutions” in England and Wales. Only three per cent of rape claims in London end in conviction.

With odds like these, the St Andrew’s Survivors feel the only solution to being heard is to stop waiting for their voices to be given a platform and to make one themselves.

You can read the full St Andrew's Survivors response here.

You can find more information and advice for people affected by rape and sexual abuse at Rape Crisis or you can call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247

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