She wrote: “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.” Through her letter, and her case, the Stanford University rape survior highlighted both the systematic and social rape culture that perpetuates our criminal justice systems, campuses, and wider society.
While the attacker in the Stanford case was found guilty of three felony sexual assault counts for the January 2015 attack - with the two formal charges of rape under California state law being dropped at the preliminary hearing - sexual assault on campus, and the lack of justice for survivors, is often misunderstood as something America messes up on.
Here in the UK, however, many people are unaware we have national statistics that show the two groups of people who are most likely to become victims of sexual violence are women aged 16 to 19, and full-time female students.
You’d think the prevalence of sexual assault on campus would mean we would have robust reporting systems and support for survivors across every campus. This, however, is not the case. Last year, when NUS surveyed student freshers of all genders, only 66 per cent said they were not aware of the procedure to report such incidents, while 12 per cent felt they would not be taken seriously if they did.
Since 1994, many universities in the UK have followed the ‘Zellick guidelines’ which advise institutions to force students who have been raped or sexually assaulted to go the police before they initiate any disciplinary procedure of their own. The NUS Women’s Campaign and Rape Crisis, therefore, has now created the #StandByMe campaign to highlight how the contents of these guidelines negatively impacts student survivors from coming forward.
The Zellick guidelines also display a naivety around the presence of rape culture in the criminal justice system. The general contents of the guidelines prioritise and protect institutions and alleged perpetrators over survivors, and has led to numerous cases where survivors have not felt able to come out and report. The fact that so many institutions use such guidelines to shape their policies means I’ve had to watch, year after year, survivors drop out of education while the people that have assaulted them carry on like nothing has happened.
Only recently has the Universities UK taskforce on violence against women, harassment, and hate crime agreed to undertake a review of these guidelines. However, this is only one part of the of the multiple barriers which prevent student survivors from coming forward.
On Tuesday, NUS launched the #StandByMe consultation report, a collection of student and students’ union views of what should be in place to support those who are affected by sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence at university. One of the most pressing issues highlighted by respondents was how institutions and students’ unions respond to disclosures of sexual violence. Ensuring the survivor is taken seriously, as well as ensuring there is no victim-blaming, were viewed as “critical” to an appropriate response.
For many student survivors, being able to access appropriate support is a ‘postcode lottery’ due to the lack of standards in the higher education sector. There’s no recent guidance on what policy, report systems, investigation procedures, and disciplinary actions are appropriate to deal with these situations. Through the #StandByMe campaign - and other student grassroots projects - student activists have long been calling for a demand for institutions to commit to preventing and addressing sexual violence.
The case at Stanford University is not the first case of its kind - sexual assault on campus is an international issue. If we truly want to fight for a better future, we need to work together to dismantle the rape culture in society and make sure all survivors get the justice and support that is deserved.
Susuana Amoah is the National Union of Students women’s officer
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