Universities cannot continue to bury and disregard sexual violence

This piece, by Shari da Silva, reflects on the Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force’s showing of the US documentary film The Hunting Ground on 28th October, and the discussion that followed it.

“I feel like it’s vaguely reassuring that he’s here,” I whispered to my friend as we sat down. We were at Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force’s second screening of The Hunting Ground, and I was referring to Graham Towl, the Pro-Vice Chancellor and Deputy Warden in the Collegiate Office. I graduated from Durham in the summer of 2014, and despite being about as involved in extra-curriculars as a Durham student can be, had only ever heard Towl’s name in passing, linked with college-specific issues, Experience Durham and the like. As far as my limited understanding of the university bureaucracy went, Towl was meant to be one of the big guns, right? And his presence at the screening (and, even, the screening’s existence) surely indicated that the university wanted to make big strides, to fight back against rape culture and sexual violence, working with and for the student body, right? Two hours later, I wasn’t exactly sure I was wrong, but I wasn’t exactly right either.

The Hunting Ground, a compelling glimpse into how rape and sexual violence are handled on campuses across the US, is certainly not an easy watch. It is by turns rage-inducing, heart-breaking and inspiring (I oscillated between tearing up, and wanting to scream at the screen) – but, ultimately, its message is undeniable: this cannot continue. Universities cannot continue to bury and disregard reports of sexual violence. There must be justice, not victim-blaming and gas-lighting, for students who are sexually assaulted on campus. As the credits rolled, it seemed impossible that anyone could possibly think otherwise. This couldn’t be happening in Durham, could it? Total naivety from me; the clue is in the name – It Happens Here.

Towl got the discussion off to a promising start – to him, the damage that Durham University could face to their reputation by not ‘doing the right thing’ far exceeded the damage that would be done by letting statistics and reports of sexual violence surface. He said the first thing the university should do when a victim of sexual assault spoke up was to ‘believe them’.  I became cautiously, foolishly optimistic.

The questions from students started out relatively simply – ‘What is the Task Force?’, ‘What does the Task Force do?’ – but Towl’s answers were convoluted and more than a little confusing. In fairness, the Task Force is so new that it is clearly still evolving, its purpose and place in the university hierarchy have yet to be determined. So I was willing to cut Towl some slack on that front.

But even when it came down to questions about the university itself – ‘Has Durham ever suspended or expelled an accused rapist?’, ‘What would happen if someone was accused of rape?’ – Towl floundered. Case in point: The Hunting Ground is full of shocking statistics on the numbers of sexual assaults reported at various universities, set against the number and type of sanctions handed out, if any. When quizzed about the corresponding data for Durham, Towl could only say he didn’t have the statistics to hand, and that part of the Task Force’s job would be to collate the data. Not particularly reassuring.

And if Towl wasn’t prepared for the most basic of questions about the university’s sexual violence policy, then he sure as hell wasn’t prepared for Betty Smildzina, one of the co-founders of It Happens Here, who delivered a blistering indictment of the university’s handling of rape cases, including the fact that it actively suppresses statistics about sexual assault to maintain its reputation of student safety (directly contradicting Towl’s opening statement). A brief round of applause from the room followed, and if a human could look like they were buffering, that would have been Towl, as he tried to regroup and bring the discussion back on track.

But what track? Towl tried – really really tried – to have a calm, rational, ‘appropriate’ forum. But rape is not ‘appropriate’. Sexual assault is not ‘appropriate’. Being brutally attacked, then summarily ignored by the institution that purports to protect you, is not ‘appropriate’. So when one particularly courageous student stood up and told her story, of how she was assaulted by a fellow student, how the university had effectively abandoned her and had taken zero action against her attacker, no, it did not fit into Towl’s mental picture of ‘appropriateness’, but it definitely needed to be said.

You may wonder why I’m so particularly invested in the issue of rape culture and sexual violence at Durham, and the answer is not quite as simple as ‘because I used to go there’. I know all too well how easy it is for universities and administrators to use the stunted institutional memory of the student body to their advantage: every three to four years, the student population replaces itself and the cycle starts anew. It’s oh-so-easy to keep up the pretence of student safety and support when no-one is going to remember otherwise in a few years – Annie Clark, one of the main activists featured in The Hunting Ground, notes as much. When I experienced this weird form of borderline gas-lighting as a member of my JCR’s Exec, it was frustrating and perplexing. To imagine it happening to students trying to get help and support after a vicious sexual assault (a situation by no means comparable) is sickening.

Beyond all that, it’s idealism. I bought into ‘The Durham Difference’ wholeheartedly, throwing myself into extra-curricular activities from Purple Radio to my JCR’s Exec, from first year to final year. I truly believe that Durham, and the people I met there, made me the person I am today – confident, successful, happy. But I was also lucky. I never personally experienced sexual violence in Durham, but it could have quite easily been me. Because it could still be people I know. Because it has been people I know and it could be again. Because even if it isn’t people I know, it’s still one of the most horrific, pervasive things that can be done to a person, and the fact that it happens is wrong, but that it is also ignored is almost worse.

Sexual violence is everyone’s problem. It happens to people of all genders and sexualities. It happens no matter what you’re wearing, or where you’re walking, or if you’re drunk or high or sober. It happens in Durham, and it happens everywhere. To pretend otherwise at this point is just absurd. What we need now is action, not wheel-spinning, and it seems like Towl, and my beloved, useless alma mater have a long way to go before that happens.

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