In my first year of university, one of my best mates pulled a girl. The next day, at some point in the hung-over re-cap, he described how hairy her nipples were. A few months later her brought another girl home - this one had the audacity to be on her period, and left before he or anyone else woke up because she had to catch a plane to Australia. Both these tales were told with a mixture of glee, curiosity and revulsion, but that pretty much sums up my first year of uni: the year my flatmates left all the dishes from our Christmas dinner in the kitchen over the holidays, the year someone broke into the flat upstairs in halls to poo in the sink as a joke (I’d explain if I understood), the year we clubbed together to make sure that everyone could afford to go to the Union’s Christmas party because as a group we were the best kind of havoc.
In my second year of university, my ten person flat divided three ways. One of the lads brought a girl home and everyone else thought it would be banter to push a wardrobe across the outside of the door so she couldn’t get out. My best mate, a hardcore atheist, set his sights on seducing (among others) a Catholic girl waiting for marriage in what was both a sexual and anti-religious crusade. I woke up one night to hear someone running out of the flat and my best mate shouting a girl’s name. The next morning he said he was worried he had had what he called ‘unconsensual sex’. I gave him a hug, completely in shock, and a few days later, the contact details for the White Ribbon Campaign attached to a letter terminating our friendship. I avoided him until I moved out and, wanting to enact some small act of justice, stole all his herbs from the cupboard when I did.
In my third year of university, I discovered he’d sexually assaulted someone else. He came up in casual conversation as always going for the seventeen year olds in the Union. I contacted a society on campus he was active in to tell them to keep an eye on him at their events, which they did. He found out and threatened to sue me for defamation. I told more people. He graduated, and I haven’t heard anything more from him since.
The point of these anecdotes are not to slander (or defame...) any specific individual but more to show how a pattern of sexually violent behaviour emerges and how difficult it can be to identify in the tumult which is university life, where (let’s face it) for the first year, most people are drunk and have no close friends let alone an idea of what is acceptable in this new cultural milieu. The warning signs for sexual violence aren’t that easy to spot, especially in an environment when it’s normal to debrief (often in graphic detail) after sexual experiences as a matter of course, or casually joke about sexual violence, or have sex with people who are wasted. We’re human: we talk about sex with friends, we make jokes we shouldn’t, we have drunk sex. In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with those three general ideas as long as they’re done with respect and an awareness of the boundaries of our friends and partners. The problem in a university setting is that often what boundaries are appropriate is not made clear - for many people, university is a time specifically for pushing and renegotiating the limits of what is and is not acceptable. In many ways, that is what university should be, but what is profoundly worrying is how those boundaries are pushed when it comes to sex. What is worrying is that when it comes to sexual relationships, the conversation and behavior around sex frequently dismisses and disrespects women. What is worrying is when these actions coalesce to form a culture which is not only misogynistic and specifically sexually violent, but normal. In the context of the chaos of my first few years at university, my friend’s admission of ‘unconsensual sex’ was not a far flung exception to what was seen as normal sexual behavior. What in retrospect was clearly predatory and misogynistic completely passed under the radar.
Recently, I’ve been working on the Let’s Talk Campaign, an effort to get better prevention of and support around sexual violence on campus including consent classes, bystander intervention and reporting pathways. I’m now in my final year and have chosen a mixture of gender and human rights based modules which fit my interests. Even so the response I’ve got from classmates and tutors has been mixed. Most people adopt a slightly poor-lamb expression and say how good, how important, how valuable it is that such a campaign is happening, but… is that really a problem here? Is it really our job to prevent it? Are you taking all this a bit seriously? The truth is, I’ve stopped telling people I volunteer at Rape Crisis because at least 40% of the time I am met with a disclosure, whether it’s someone’s own experience or a friend’s. When you open up the discussion, most people can provide an example of behaviour they’ve seen that hovers at those nudged boundaries of what is OK, and it makes me wonder what sort of disconnect is going on when people can talk about the endless amounts of times they’ve had to form a circle around a female friend at a club to block out the advances of someone who just won’t take no for an answer but still think that rape isn’t something that happens here.
However much we like to think that the folks holding cheeky comparisons between last night’s conquests and the men whose actions our service users spend years working through are two completely separate groups of people, there will be one or two who sit in both camps. What to other people is an un-pc joke will to them be validation, what to administrators is an arduous system of reporting will to them be a loophole in accountability. Preventing sexual violence on campus doesn’t stop university being somewhere that you can have difficult conversations and new experiences: apart from the fact you can do that intellectually, there are ways to go out, get drunk, have casual sex, have banter, get the ‘uni experience’ and not foster sexual violence. Finding out what my then-best friend did was terrifying - perhaps the only thing scarier is that when you suggest ways to prevent similar situations arising , people act like you’re some kind of radical.