Sexual violence on campus: We’re at a tipping point

By Emily Whiteside

Reading about the Title IX complaints in the USA or first watching The Hunting Ground, I never imagined that I would one day sit opposite Annie Clark and Andrea Pino in Flat White Kitchen on a Wednesday afternoon.

In January 2013, Annie and Andrea filed a 34-page federal suit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The complaint charged that the university had violated Title IX and Cleary Act legislation in its handling of their sexual assaults, and those of three other students. Their rise to fame has been well documented (1, 2, 3), and today they are public speakers, activists and co-founders of End Rape on Campus. They agreed to meet It Happens Here while visiting Durham to deliver a talk for the Castle Lecture Series.

Zeenia and I meet them in Castle, where they introduce themselves as Annie and Andrea and I struggle not to gush ‘I know’ as we shook hands.

Our meeting room had been double booked and every chair that we could find had rope stretched between the arms in a way that made me grateful for Mildert’s battered sofas. So Andrea suggests we walk into town and disappears upstairs to retrieve an enormous white coat that betrayed her Florida upbringing.

The next hour and a half was an inspiration and an education. Although they are both just a few years older than me, their confidence, knowledge and experience give the impression that they’ve been doing this for decades.

We list the things that outrage us about Durham. There is no comprehensive policy on sexual violence, no procedure in place that deals with disclosures or outlines consequences. The obscure chain of disclosure (the people who are notified when somebody does report) is long and convoluted. There is no mandatory training on responding to disclosures for staff in pastoral roles, like Senior Tutors. There are no centralised signposting resources for survivors.

Annie and Andrea don’t react with the shock and indignation that I expected. Instead they nod, unfazed. They’ve seen it all before. The problems exist in Durham and Chapel Hill alike.

“The UK,” Andrea says, “is where the U.S. was in 2012. And you’re on a precipice. I can see it happening.”

Annie adds, “It seems as though we’re the only ones going through it, but we’re not. Society keeps us from talking about it, society keeps us apart.”

I had prepared interview-style questions and revised their Wikipedia pages, but it turned out to be the most relaxed meeting I’ve ever had. Discussion on the legal definition of rape in North Carolina, Massachusetts and South Africa is interspersed with complaints from Andrea about her straightener not working with British plugs. But there is a recurring call to action. Annie and Andrea think big – bigger than I’ve ever thought as part of It Happens Here.

We have lobbied the university for a satisfactory policy on sexual violence that isn’t a vague afterthought in the guidelines on harassment. I spent the summer writing emails persuading colleges and frep teams to hold consent workshops and talks (“you did that? You’re awesome!” says Annie. I probably blush). But they have made me see a bigger picture, a wider pattern that goes beyond just Durham. They inspire us – challenge us – to think on a larger scale. Annie takes our email addresses and says she wants to connect us to students in Oxford, Edinburgh, London, to the new UK-based branch of End Rape on Campus.

All the students who filed Title IX complaints were ordinary people, they point out.

“Students have so much more power than they think they do,” Annie tells us, “and often the administration don’t want you to know that.”

She’s right. Universities are big businesses, although admittedly less so than in the States. Durham needs students to keep applying here. They need our £9000 a year (let’s not even start on international fees). After all, how else will they continue to invest in arms companies, The Daily Mail, and Picasso paintings? We should hold them accountable for our safety and wellbeing.

“It makes me think of Malala.” (I can’t remember who said this, because by this point my notes are including fewer names and more exclamation points and phrases like collective thinking and institutional indifference underlined three or four times) Annie/Andrea continues, “She advocates for female access to education, and often people don’t associate that with the US or the UK, but we’re not past that here. We are not equal on campus when we fear violence and harassment.”

This is the topic of their talk that evening: “The Empty Chair: Sexual Violence and Rape Culture as Global Barriers to Education”. As I walk there, two guys are leaning against the gate that leads to Prebends Bridge. As I pass them I tense automatically, keeping my eyes straight ahead and my fingers curled round my keys in my pocket. Rationally speaking, I know that I am most likely to be raped by someone I know – statistically, my boyfriend is more of a threat to me than these strangers. But this fear, the automatic threat that men represent, is part of the not equal that Annie and Andrea emphasise in their speech just 20 minutes later. I am conscious of the irony.

While men loitering on poorly lit roads may not be within the university’s remit, Andrea and Annie maintain that staff and administrators do have a responsibility to promote a safe environment. They must ensure survivors feel supported in coming forward; have clean, streamlined policies that are easily accessible; offer mental health and psychiatric services; engage in an active, on-going conversation with students.

They introduce benchmarks against which to measure the progress of an institution, posing questions like “do students know what the reporting options are?” I put this to my friends when I get home. “Who would you go to if you were sexually assaulted?” I ask.

“You, probably” one says.

“What if you didn’t know me?”

“No idea”.

They talk about universities forming committees that exclude students and survivors. Durham has set up the Sexual Violence Task Force, which I would forgive you for not having heard of. Apart from an update in October which didn’t go too well and one fairly uninformative article in the Palatinate, its progress has been woefully under-publicised. Maybe because there hasn’t been any yet.

Early next term, It Happens Here is meeting with Graham Towl, the Task Force’s chair. Our list of demands is the same as it has been for the last two years: mandatory staff training, a comprehensive sexual violence and disclosure policy, proper signposting. But hopefully this year is different.

“You’re on the tipping point,” Andrea said emphatically in Flat White, rapping her pen on her notebook for emphasis, “In a few years, you’ll look back and see history being made, right now!”

I’m hoping that Durham University will choose to be on the right side of history.

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