I want to feel proud of my university in its initiation of a Sexual Violence Task Force. This is a step which no other university in the UK has taken, and it preceded by several months the setting up of a national taskforce by the UK government. Who would have thought it – Durham, our quaint old institution, leading the way and pioneering change in the way that universities respond to sexual violence. It demonstrates a recognition that this is a major issue, and a recognition that serious change is needed in how the university responds to it. So it is certainly an important and positive step that Durham has taken.
So why is the university not bigging itself up about this? Speak to students beyond those who take an active interest in this issue and you will find that many do not know that the Task Force exists at all. This is hardly surprising, when we look at the efforts (or lack of) the university has made to inform people about its existence. There are a whole host of things it could be doing with the hefty resources at its disposal to make its own student body aware of the Task Force, explain why it has been set up, why it is so important, and encouraging students to get involved in helping to shape the recommendations that it will make. For example, the Task Force has organised several consultation events, so why is the university not throwing all its weight behind them, ensuring they are comprehensively publicised, and getting as many people along as possible?
The Task Force’s webpage is tucked away in a corner of the university’s website – a brief mention of it has recently been added to the ‘student safety’ pages, but that is the only visible link to it that I can find, and sexual violence is simply not mentioned anywhere else on the site. There was a brief article in the Palatinate about the initiation of the Task Force, but that has been about it. I know that getting information out to students is a challenge, and life would be a lot easier if everyone carefully read each line of their weekly ‘Dialogue – Signposts’ e-mail, but with the overload of information we all receive every day, we all know a lot of people don’t do that. Sometimes, if you consider an issue to be of particular importance, you need to recognise that that some things take priority, and make the extra effort to make sure that the message is received as far and wide as possible. Unless, of course, the university is still reluctant to bring attention to the fact that sexual violence is a major issue for students at Durham (as it is at every university)? Or isn’t actually that keen to hear what students have to say on the matter, beyond perhaps the student ‘establishment’ in terms of the students’ union and college common rooms? It is interesting, for example, that It Happens Here has not been asked to participate in the Task Force or any of its working groups, despite having campaigned against sexual violence and delivered numerous workshops on consent and sexual violence on campus in the last few years.
Furthermore, the way in which the university has engaged in discussion around sexual violence and its response to it has all too often been characterised by defensiveness, including at some of the Task Force’s ‘listening events’. If Durham is going to improve how it deals with sexual violence then it surely needs to recognise that – along with every institution in the country – it has got a lot of things wrong to date, and that it needs to listen and learn from the people who study and work at the university, from those who campaign tirelessly around sexual violence, and from survivors. This kind of defensiveness, and the seeming reluctance to make the conversation about sexual violence ‘too public’, suggests that the university may still be operating on the basis that it is more worried about protecting its reputation and its image than it is about supporting and protecting its students. Which is of course a ridiculous mistake, because what could be more important to your reputation than the safety and wellbeing of those who study or work at your institution? It is also a worrying sign, because wasn’t the Task Force set up to address things like the fact that sexual violence has been hidden, ignored and dismissed for far too long?
Another thing that concerns me is how, on many occasions when we talk about Durham’s response to sexual violence, we inadvertently build in excuses for the university to do as little as possible right from the outset, because of ‘economic constraints’ for example. I don’t think it’s ‘unrealistic’ or ‘naive’ to expect an institution like Durham, with the resources at its disposal, to invest whatever is necessary to ensure that it is putting a zero tolerance approach to sexual violence into practice, from compulsory consent workshops and staff training to ensuring high quality support is available for survivors both within and outside of the university – and making sure that there is strong overarching leadership on all these issues right from the top. Indeed, surely we should demand nothing less. What’s more, I understand the need for the Task Force to consult and gather views and information, but why has it seemingly not actually done anything since it formed last June? Why is the university not doing things right now to improve its response? For example, would it really be so difficult to immediately introduce clear and easy to find signposting information to support services for survivors, on the university’s webpages and in its materials and buildings? Its timidity also suggests that the university continues to fail to recognise the sheer prevalence of sexual violence, as everyday acts experienced by women in particular, that form part of a continuum of violence and abuse against women and girls, which are enabled and excused by a wider rape culture and sexism on campus.
The point is, Durham did not establish this Task Force because it suddenly, benevolently realised that sexual violence is something which it should probably be addressing. It did so because of the ongoing pressure that has been placed on it by students, staff and the wider community, demanding action. The question is, is the Task Force a public relations exercise to give the impression that the university is ‘doing something about this’, or is it really going to lead to serious, significant change? It is up to each of us, students and staff, to continue to put as much pressure on the university as we can to make sure it’s the latter.
Of course, in an ideal world we would have leadership at the national level from the government on this, but I won’t be holding my breath – so far little has come out of the aforementioned Universities UK taskforce, and if the government is unwilling to consider making sex and relationship education in schools compulsory, I don’t have much faith that they will be leading the fight to tackle sexual violence on campus anytime soon. Besides, this issue is too urgent to wait – the university has a responsibility to take action and to do so now. From support for survivors to prevention and awareness raising programmes, from robust, clear policies and sanctions to comprehensive training for staff, Durham needs to implement deep-rooted, far-reaching changes across the institution if it is serious about tackling sexual violence. Let’s make sure that that happens!