When I went to the university I was cynical about how much they could do. But, even with my expectations at rock bottom, I hadn’t imagined that at the end of it all I’d be the one threatened with expulsion and legal action.
At the start of the school year I’d been informed by staff that, all things considered, we shouldn’t file a complaint against him; it might render the university liable further down the line in a criminal case. No, it was police or nothing, despite the endless list of reasons that this was a terrible idea. I’d heard the stories from other survivors; “it was like being raped all over again”, or even “it was worse” featured heavily. Only one of us wanted to go to the police, but it was the only option given to both. The police all but laughed us off.
Sitting in the same university office several months later, I was nearly speechless with rage and fright. Now I was being told that he’d filed a complaint against me for harassment, citing the police as his evidence.
I asked, “Worst case scenario?”
“I’m so sorry.” There was a loaded pause. “Absolute worst case scenario—you get expelled.”
I was pretty sorry as well, for having ever made the mistake of going to the university.
It had taken significant escalation of the situation for me to even consider it. The two promises I’d obtained in the aftermath—through the mediating factor of friends—were, first, that he wouldn’t come near me and second, that he wouldn’t talk about it with anyone else. In the months since it had become clear that his interpretation of this was to spread intimate details to anyone who would listen. A lot of the details changed in each retelling. A fair few of them were blatant lies. He could have easily been caught out had anybody cared to talk to me. But of course nobody did, and I’d zipped my mouth shut.
Being informed by a mutual acquaintance that I’d been painted as a “psycho ex” wasn’t the deal-breaker to unzipping it. The deal-breaker was that people believed this coming from a man who, as one of his friends put it, ‘just sees no as a challenge’.
In the first meeting with the university the most important point to establish, after we’d said what he’d done to us, was that I was not going to the police. My friend wanted to but we weren’t ‘good’ victims: each of us had had a few drinks—should have known better—flirted a bit beforehand—cancelled out the times we’d asked him to back off—not to mention that we were thought of as a bit weird. That last one is an uninventive code for mentally ill.
A few meetings later we were told that once an official investigation had been launched perhaps the university could revoke his college privileges, maybe even suspend him. If we didn’t go to the police? Diddly squat. I left that office under strict instruction not to be left on my own. I hadn’t taken the news very well. My friend walked me to my room, where I didn’t exactly reassure anyone by crawling underneath my bed and refusing to come out. That evening, after eventually crawling back out, I wrestled with my decision. She was determined to go ahead—could I really just watch her from the sidelines?
The police interview was hell. By the end of the evening, I was completely exhausted. The brightest moment of the whole thing was when the officer was leaving. Standing in the corridor, reunited after giving our independent testimony, we heard them say that there was pretty good chance of the case going to court. I was stunned, reassured that I’d made the right decision; something good was going to come of this.
Less than 24 hours later, the same officer was informing me that the case had been dropped and they’d decided that no crime had taken place. I burst into tears for what felt like the thousandth time that week. Police training does not apparently encompass this scenario; they sidled out, just stopping short of coughing in embarrassment. I didn’t even get a jolly clap on the shoulder.
My phone rang later. “I feel like I just got run over by a fucking tractor,” she said.
“No-crimed for you too?” As crushed as I was, she’d been angrier and had argued back. Conversation had been in full swing in the back of a police car when she found that her testimony had been taken down wrong or—as they insisted—that she’d changed her story. I’ve heard her recount that story enough times to retell it in my sleep. The details have never changed.
So they got more serious about interviewing her. “Were you attracted to him?” was a highly important question, not to mention a classic of the genre, “what were you wearing?”—pyjamas, if you were interested—and the frankly baffling, “well, look, do you feel like a crime has been committed?” I suppose we just rang up the police for a bit of light entertainment and deserved a slap on the wrist for opening our call with, “we’d like to report a crime”. Students will do anything for a laugh.
When I eventually found out why my case had been dropped I was, fundamentally, baffled. Of course, it wasn’t anything silly like lack of evidence. Ah, no—it was mainly issues taken with my behaviour. At one point he’d left and come back and, well, I hadn’t screamed, locked the door and left him in the corridor in his unmentionables. Clearly I’d been quite keen on him, then. About ten minutes later, I’d succumbed to rising hysterical panic and, trying not to show it, managed to get him to leave; since he hadn’t hulked out and thrown me across the room he was evidently a stand-up bloke. Made me look a bit shady actually. Cast doubt on everything else I’d said. The general tone throughout was that I was getting very worked up about nothing and harassing a decent boy. I noticed that the officer I was talking to hadn’t even bothered to learn my friend’s name; they repeatedly got it wrong.
For a while, I flat out gave up. My grades were crashing, my friendships imploding because I was furious, despondent and helplessly pessimistic. During one panic attack I fell down a flight of stairs. At the bottom, I found myself nearly laughing at the thought that this was a solid metaphor for… basically, everything that was happening.
As victim-survivors, both of us stayed close. Everyone else, purposefully or not, had at least several filters between them and the sheer raw grossness. We didn’t. It was impossible to switch off anyway; her police experience was far from over.
My friend was and is, by nature, more argumentative than me. If it hasn’t become evident by this point, my number one response to adversity is to cry. Maybe a panic attack first. When you expect to get treated like shit, it’s not a massive surprise. For those who believe in justice it is, however, an outrage. She was one of those people at the time.
So her chats with the police continued. Somehow, the event that reduced me to literal incomprehensible shrieks of horror was interpreted by proud upholders of the law as “only teasing”. When she emphasised the fact that she’d said no quite clearly, they ummed and ahhed about hard nos versus soft nos. Then it got graphic. In fact, graphic enough to discuss how the velocity of an airborne penis can affect whether what happened was just kinda iffy or actually like… crime. How long does a no stay a no before it expires? Why didn’t she say no while the penis was winging its way towards her, before it touched her? When it was explained that there had not physically been time to say anything, they grudgingly gave up.
She has never shied away from the graphic details. “After all,” she says simply, while we’re discussing what she’d like me to write, “it’s the truth”.
Oddly enough, when he admitted that she was telling the truth, this was not enough for the police to take her seriously. “Look, he took advantage of you and it wasn’t nice, but is it really a crime?” transformed into “alright, yes, he has confirmed what you said he did—but he didn’t really mean it”. The next step was put into her hands. It was either a caution, or going the way of restorative justice. When my friend rang me, she was deeply troubled. “They said that going for a caution might ruin his life… and he seemed really upset…”
I did an uncanny impression of a banshee when I heard how the officer was convinced of his deep, abiding sorrow. “ABUSE 101,” I shouted into my phone. “THEY ALWAYS SAY THEY’RE SORRY!”
I’ll be honest; restorative justice is the most fucking baffling official response to sexual violence I’ve ever heard. The abuser and victim sit down together and have a chat. This is it. They have a chat, supervised by a trained facilitator and the abuser apparently realises all the harm they’ve caused. It is worth noting that the official UK website for restorative justice emphasises that “for any kind of communication to take place, the offender must have admitted to the crime”. So, in suggesting this—the officer was very keen on it—the police had acknowledged that a crime had taken place and that he had committed it. I’m pointing this out. Pointedly.
My friend said no to both options. It was a crime. She wanted to take it further—to court.
Not long after that, she was hospitalised. It wasn’t just the police. Neither of us were poster girls for stability. But the stress of the situation undeniably contributed. When she was discharged, it took an age to get back in contact with the police to figure out what had been happening while she’d been so ill. Months and months later, they told her they’d no-crimed it. Again.
Over the course of the year, I’d picked up horror stories. In one of my first meetings with the university, I was told that another woman had gone through a similar experience last year. What had happened to her? She left. Eleanor de Freitas’ story broke in the middle of our reluctant dealings with the police. At the time, I wondered if we’d end up as someone else’s horror story. I think we have.
Now that my friend was recovering at home, our tightly knit unit had been separated. It was odd that this had originally brought us together—we’d only known each other casually before the realisation that we had him in common—and then dumped us apart. Without my more outspoken partner, I felt more alone, more ashamed and crushed by the pressure of what was going unsaid. It didn’t seem that I had much to lose by telling some people who I hoped would believe me. It was still a dizzying leap of faith. They offered tissues, a glass of water, a hug. For a brief moment, I felt like I was taking back some measure of control over my life.
One of those people went right to him. About a week later I had the email, the trip back to the office, and was informed that I was now the one under investigation.
A simple solution had already been suggested by a senior member of staff: I could make him an apology, retract my offending statement and promise never to talk about it again. The promise would be considered binding. If I talked and it got back to him, I would be neck-deep in shit. A gag, effectively, slapped over my mouth as long as he was around; an Orwellian nightmare where he might be listening around any corner.
I hadn’t realised it was possible to sink further. A markedly low point was when all I could think about was slitting my wrists and bleeding out; it seemed a faster way to die. God, but I wanted to let this, at last, all be over. People assured me, confidently, that of course I wasn’t going to get expelled; that was ridiculous, it couldn’t happen, the university couldn’t let it. I didn’t have the energy to argue that I had precisely fuck-all faith in Durham any more.
Exams swung round again, and progress drip dropped to a halt. No more emails. No more news. The university has gone silent.
I cannot live silently. Being denied the right to speak—except in hushed tones, making a secret society of those few who can be trusted—just locks the rage and trauma inside. When each professional has let you down, one by one, and the sight of a police car is enough to make you shake and sweat, and bystanders continue to hand the power back to the predator; when you are the crazy bitch and he is, really, just a nice lad who cried at the thought that he might have done something wrong—
Towl figured that it was “inappropriate” for me to talk about what happened to me when I did, at the showing of the Hunting Ground. This university is different, after all, he stressed. They care here. Just… not right now. It’s not appropriate. But—I forgot to ask in the heat of the moment—when will it be? Can I have a time—maybe a place? After all, the Durham website proudly says that it’s A Responsible University. It’s under the bit about our values. So when do I get to talk without being expelled or sued for defamation hanging over my head? How many women does he have to rape before you decide it’s got to stop? How many of us are expendable to you as long as we don’t fit your brand of happy-safe-excellence? When does justice start actually fucking existing for victims and survivors?
Guess I’ll wait for all those promises to come around.
Won’t be holding my breath.
“I’m trying to remind myself that I didn’t do anything to deserve such treatment. I don’t think I have ever had anyone look at me like that and say they were worried about me, and I am holding on to it like a treasure: the idea that I am worth being worried about by someone I respect and who does understand how deeply I am struggling now.” (The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk)
The title of this piece is based upon a quote by Catharine MacKinnon (1989).