Why rape jokes are never acceptable

By Ellen Finch

Last year, I wrote a blog post about rape jokes. It was a response to the most recent of many jokes my housemate had made over the year. At the time, it received some positive comments, and it seemed like people were relieved to see something written to try and address the issue. Unfortunately, though, the post hadn’t reached the person I wanted it to in the way I’d hoped. My friend spoke to my housemate the day after the post, and he was confounded by it. He didn’t see what the issue was, and anyway, he said, “it’s not like anyone in the house has been raped.”

There was the issue. He’d made an assumption about the environment in which he was making the jokes, based on no proof except the fact that no one had disclosed an experience of sexual violence to him personally.

It was clear that the arguments in my blog post hadn’t hit home. I linked to an article that described the effects of rape jokes on potential rapists, which has gained more and more relevance in the wake of studies like the one in Violence and Gender in 2014. With a significant proportion of people admitting that they would force someone into having sex, as long as the term ‘rape’ wasn’t used, it’s clear that jokes trivialising sexual violence could have an effect on more people than we might initially expect. After all, contrary to popular belief, rapists are not distinguished from ‘ordinary’ men by long black coats and an evil-looking disposition. Indeed, they are ordinary men. They are fathers, sons, brothers, friends and housemates. They are potentially people in the vicinity when you tell a rape joke. And by telling that joke – which trivialises and mocks the very act of violating a person’s basic human right – you are telling people that rape isn’t a serious subject, and that people can get entertainment out of it. In this sense, rape jokes – and jokes about all aspects of sexual violence – validate the thoughts of potential rapists, and can even empower them.

This argument doesn’t even begin to take into account the effect of these jokes on survivors of sexual violence. With a 2010 NUS report showing that 1 in 7 female students are subject to serious sexual or physical assault, and a 2015 report by The Telegraph asserting that 1 in 3 have endured sexual assault or unwanted advances, it seems obvious that jokes about sexual violence are deeply inappropriate on campus. One cannot make the assumption that no one in the vicinity has suffered sexual assault in some form with these statistics in mind. To that end, it seems obvious that making a joke that can have a profound effect on someone who hears it is morally wrong.

At this point, I can hear the cries of protest. “Jokes are meant to offend,” they’ll say. “You’re just being too PC! If jokes weren’t offensive, they wouldn’t be funny!”

I can think of lots of jokes that are funny without being offensive. The one about coral being stressed about current affairs is one of them. But without getting into the philosophy of joke-making, there’s an obvious reason not to make rape jokes. They are not just offensive, but they are potentially triggering for survivors who hear them. They demean those who have suffered sexual violence and trivialise their experience. They reinforce the rape culture that dominates university campuses around the UK. They are rooted in an aggressive and violent culture that normalises rape, diminishing the responsibility of rapists and the need to tackle such behaviour. It has been shown in studies that ‘dark humour’ is used by law enforcement officers to desensitise themselves to the scenes they witness as part of their job. This desensitising effect is the same in the case of rape jokes, but the agenda is very different. Rape jokes are not used to help people cope with emotionally taxing work, after all. Rather, they help to increase insensitivity to survivors and their families, thus contributing to the endless cycle of victim-blaming that pervades on and off campus.

If you’re not convinced by the arguments above, at least consider what making rape jokes means for you. Offensive jokes are often seen to represent the attitudes of the person making them towards the subject, even if that isn’t true. So while you don’t condone rape, what other people are hearing is that you do, and not just that: you find it funny. So if not for the survivors who might be triggered by them, or the potential perpetrators who may be empowered, don’t tell rape jokes for the sake of your own reputation. Think about what you’re promoting.

If you’re interested in reading further, more coherent articles about the effect of rape jokes, the links below are interesting:





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.

Why we need consent workshops

By Gina Cuomo

Many universities up and down the country have for the first time this year run sexual consent workshops. This has taken place to the dismay of some, such as the two students at Warwick University who published their thoughts on the matter earlier this week.

There is quite a good chance you have read about their opinions on a Facebook invite to such a talk. But consent talks like the ones they were invited educate the student population about a vastly important topic.

Anyone who doesn’t realise how big an issue sexual violence is within universities obviously cannot appreciate the magnitude of the statistics. According to a 2010 NUS survey, 68% of female students will experience some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment during their time at university, with 1 in 7 becoming a victim of a serious physical or sexual assault. This is to say nothing of the male and gender non-binary individuals who are targets of such incidences, and people who have been victims during childhood or adolescence who are affected by attitudes and conversations surrounding consent and sexual violence.

The consent workshops are a conscious effort by student unions and campaigns at various institutions to disrupt rape culture and support those affected by these issues. No matter how well informed you are on consent, there are always new things to learn and new perspectives to appreciate. The talks we gave to various colleges in Durham obviously focused on what consent was, but also on how to support friends through the aftermath of incidences of sexual violence and what options there are for victims.

These talks are so important in helping students appreciate what sexual violence looks like in the real world. These talks discuss the myths surrounding these issues that just help to perpetuate the false perception of harassment. Sexual violence is not about “a stranger in a dark alley” – you are 5 times more likely to be a victim of sexual violence at the hands of your partner than a stranger. 80 – 90% of targets of serious incidences know their attackers. There’s no such thing as not looking like a rapist, because they could look like you or me or any other person you pass in the street, and attitudes such as this just further the view that sexual violence doesn’t affect us, because after all those victims aren’t faceless; targets are your flatmates, the person you sit next to in lectures, your friends.

The main issue people seem to have about discussions around consent is that it is supposedly labelling all men as rapists, and creating a culture in which men are scared of being falsely accused of rape. In actual fact, over the course of a man’s life there is more chance of them becoming a victim of rape, than being falsely accused. These consent talks aren’t about brandishing men as perpetrators, it’s about informing everyone and teaching them how to promote a culture that is supportive of victims. The workshops aren’t to preach about what consent is – they are about teaching people what consent looks like. The talks delve into how we can help our peers deal with this issue that affects a far larger proportion of society than we wish to admit, and try to help open the eyes of our student body to the gap between our perception of rape culture and the harsh reality.

Thank you to those Durham colleges that have invited It Happens Here to speak and run workshops with them so far this term. This has included: Freshers Reps at Van Mildert, St Aidan’s, and St Hild and St Bede; the MCR of St John’s; and the freshers students at Van Mildert, St. Aidan’s and Collingwood colleges.

Why didn’t he let me go?

By Laura Mounsey

The only way for me to write this is to be unapologetically honest, so that others who read this may be able to best understand what situation they may be in also. Domestic violence is one of those things in the UK where we are aware of it but dress it up so much that we don’t realise that it is everywhere, even happening to you right now.

I feel it is my responsibility to open everyone’s eyes to the reality of domestic violence and sexual violence happening in young relationships. It happens, it is everywhere and it is incredibly dangerous. At university, we are in our most important years where we can find ourselves, grasp independence and succeed. But for a lot of us, we also want to be in love and be supported. In actuality, a lot of what I see is women isolated, controlled, sexually degraded and having a violent relationship take their life away from them. There is nothing more important to me than putting the spotlight on how this is happening to so many women. But let me tell you, no victim of a domestic violent relationship asked this to happen to them, it is not their fault or because we are weak as so many people I am sure will believe.

Let us remember that 1 in 4 women will be in a violent relationship, with on average 37 incidents of violence occurring before the police are even called for the first time. (Victim Support, 2014) If we think about this, plus the added fact that serious sexual assault is most likely to be committed by someone known to the victim (89% of female victims) and over half (54%) of female victims reported that a partner or ex-partner had been the offender (British Crime Survey 2005/06).  To anyone reading that, there is surely no doubt that many women are being abused at our university. Violence and abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, financial or sexual, in what you hope to be a ‘loving’, ‘romantic’, ‘committed’ relationship is particularly toxic and destructive. Loving a man who seemingly hates you with every blow of violence is so confusing. At the same time they are obsessed with you, maybe even protective and possessive. They will say “I love you. I always have. No one has ever been like we are. We are special. No one will love you like I do. I am special. You aren’t special. I am.”

Whether you are out on a night out in Fabios, or it is an afternoon doing some work and you get a text. He will want to know everything about what you are doing, who you are with, why you are going without him, constantly testing your commitment to him. He will ask ‘do you think it is acceptable for you to talk to other men?’ He doesn’t want you talking to other men. He might be adamant that women have a predetermination to manipulate sex and their sexuality. He believes you to have been promiscuous before him, unfaithful to him now and constantly flirting with other men. Being at university makes all this even stronger and scarier because your family isn’t around, your friends if they have picked up on it more than likely don’t know what to do and loving that person is always going to be a battle.

From my experience, my partner believed that all women were whores, manipulative, promiscuous and no relationship no matter how platonic could be shared with another man. The violence that resulted from this was systematic and intentioned, almost if I had to learn his rules of the relationship. So I changed my behaviour, even blocking every guy’s number in my phone but the rules always changed. Finally culminating in the most violent occurrence, he was involved in a fight with 5 other men on a birthday night out. His shirt was ripped clean off and upon taking him home, the two hour unrelenting ordeal began. Just like many other women, despite injuries and fear, I was forced to sleep with him within 24 hours of all that unrelenting violence. Him with a broken hand, me with a very disfigured face, broken ribs and concussion but all because he loved me. He loved me and I loved him so much that when he lent on my ribs and caused excruciating pain, I said nothing.

Since that 6 months, the reverberation of the misconstrued, ill placed mantra of ‘why didn’t you just leave?’ has plagued me. Having worked in a Gender Based Violence Unit in Kenya during the relationship and having successfully broken out of the relationship and since become a domestic violence victim support specialist, I struggle to offer an answer.

Why didn’t I leave? I was lead to believe that it was down to him, something not in my control. It wasn’t his fault, a rarity, a sickness and personal insecurity. Maybe just when he was drunk or the fact he had seen his father beat his mother till he was five years old. It was his background, almost as if he couldn’t help it. How could I expect him to have turned out any differently? Personal insecurity is how I justified his behaviour and something I could fix. But please understand, you cannot fix them.

As I have continued to share my story and experience to friends and strangers, I have never been satisfied by any response or reaction given. I have been ridiculed by questions such as ‘what did you do to deserve that?’ and ‘did it start as a sexual fantasy’? As much as these questions are irrational to me, they planted the idea in my mind that there is a level of acceptability about domestic violence. In fact, I would say that the light is always shone on how the victims have behaved, we must have done something to make him to do that to us. Sex and sexuality are very easily used to control women, whether that be that we should always want to have sex with our partners or accusations of affairs. Sometimes sex gets confused with being a way to show how much you love someone.

It is all well and good reading what I am sure seems like a sporadic list of thoughts about domestic violence or maybe it is something you have heard before. Going back to my intention behind this piece, I want people to recognise when this is happening to them and to get out as soon as they can. It is an incredibly serious situation and on the most basic level, the sooner you break free from a domestic violent relationship, the less of your life you will lose. Awareness of domestic violence is gaining more momentum in the UK. It is on the news, there are campaigns, there is a new coercive control law, specialist domestic violence courts, there are new protection orders that the police can instruct etc. If anything that is written in this blog resonates with you or you feel at all like your relationship is taking you away from who you are then please come forward to the police.

Men on campus must take a stand against sexual violence

By Stephen Burrell

Sexual violence is endemic at our universities. One of the things It Happens Here fights for is recognition of this fact – that it does happen here, at university, in Durham. However, if it is hard for us to accept that so many female students have experienced sexual violence, it is seemingly even harder for us to acknowledge that many male students are perpetrating these acts. Yet we cannot hope to tackle the problem if we do not recognise and confront this hushed reality. What’s more, the sheer pervasiveness of sexual violence at university means that we are not just talking about a few pathological, deviant ‘monsters’ – no matter how much easier it might be to think of perpetrators of sexual violence in this way. No, the extent to which sexual violence is perpetrated at university not only means that these are normalised experiences for women, but that they are also normalised acts, committed by normal men.

So how can it be that so many young men think it is acceptable to sexually assault, harass, abuse, and rape women? I think it is in no small part because that is the message given by the society in which we live. And we as men have to recognise that this is particularly true in the cultures we share with other men. If we look closely at ourselves, consider the things that we do and say in our everyday lives, and ask ourselves how we may have helped to create a context where sexual violence is tolerated, then how many of us can honestly say that we have never played any part in that? This can be in acts which might seem small and insignificant. It could be laughing at a joke about rape, or objectifying women among friends, or joining in with sexist assertions about women in academia as ‘banter’, or encouraging predatory behaviour towards women on a night out, or unthinkingly repeating myths around sexual violence which minimise the crime or blame the victim, for example. It can often be simply not doing or saying anything at all; staying silent when confronted with sexism or misogyny, and leaving it unchallenged. By staying silent, we are complicit in the epidemic of sexual violence, because we are helping to maintain a situation where this violence is legitimised among men, and signalling that we are fine with that. No matter how big or small they may seem, no matter how insignificant we think they may be, our actions and inactions always have consequences, whether we know about them or not. However, this also applies when we challenge the everyday perpetuation of this culture. So, if we as men refuse to participate in the condoning of sexual violence which takes place on our campuses, if we speak out against the violence that is being perpetrated by men towards women all around us, the reverberations can go further than we might realise, in opening up possibilities for change.

Clearly, sexual violence cannot simply be dismissed by men as a ‘women’s issue’. The idea that this is not something which concerns men is a bit like saying that climate change is an issue for the planet, and not for the humans who have caused it. It concerns us, first and foremost because sexual violence is not only perpetrated predominantly by men, but also because men create a culture among ourselves which makes it possible. This is a culture in which women are routinely dehumanised through sexism, objectification, and misogyny, and violence by men against women is dismissed, joked about, excused, and encouraged. And it also concerns us because we have the power to challenge that culture, and play a positive role in proactively standing up and saying that the status quo of everyday sexism, misogyny, violence and abuse by men towards women is not okay, that these acts are not carried out in our name, and that we refuse to stay silent or continue to condone them.

This is not something which can be limited to one group of men. There are so many things each of us can do, and in the university setting, every man has a vital part to play. It doesn’t matter if we are undergraduates, postgraduates, academics or staff, each one of us can help to bring about change. This doesn’t just mean lending support to It Happens Here – although of course, that would be great. It should also mean, for example, challenging the next misogynistic joke or sexist comment that you encounter. And listening to women when they talk about their experiences, rather than immediately dismissing, disagreeing or disbelieving them because what they say doesn’t fit into your view of the world. And questioning ideas about what it means to be a man in our society, and why so many of those ideas seem to involve not treating women with respect, as equals. And intervening when a friend appears to be making somebody feel uncomfortable or pressured. But it has to go much further, too. At every level, from policy through to the day-to-day interactions which make up our lives, radical change is needed if we are serious about tackling sexual violence at university and beyond. Men can play an important part in that, and men have a responsibility to make that change happen in our relations with one another.

This must begin closest to home, with ourselves. The point many feminists have long made that the personal is political could not be more relevant here. As men, we have to carefully and constantly look at our own assumptions and behaviours, and think truthfully about how they may help to reinforce, or challenge, the ways in which sexual violence is viewed and legitimised in our society. Everything we do in our personal lives also has political consequences, and it is primarily through interpersonal, everyday interactions between men that the legitimisation of sexual violence is perpetuated. This is not inevitable. But it will need men to stand up, individually and collectively, and refuse to be silent about this anymore, for change to happen. University should be a place which is welcoming, fun, and inspiring for everyone. Every student should be able to feel safe, and no woman should have to fear sexual violence. Every one of us as men has to take responsibility for the part we play in allowing the legitimisation of sexual violence to persist, and each of us has to take responsibility not to be complicit in that any longer – and to be part of the struggle towards a world where sexual violence no longer exists.

Boyfriend and J: Sexual Abuse in Long Term Relationships

By Anonymous

Sexual abuse can go on for years, hidden behind the veneer of a perfect relationship. J had already tried to end her relationship with her abusive boyfriend a few years previously, telling him that she did not want to be with him any longer. Boyfriend, however, refused to let her break up with him: ‘No, I will not allow it,’ he had told her. So she carried on, persuading herself that she was ‘in love’ and that she enjoyed it. Both J and Boyfriend came to study at Durham, sharing a college room in their first-year, and living together in the same room in a house outside College in their second.

J was quiet and shy, rarely socializing with the rest of the girls in the house. Boyfriend, however, quickly came under the influence of a male fellow-housemate, a walking epitome of compensatory hyper-masculine lad-culture. The two began to go on nighttime adventures together, trailing Klute and Fabios for drunken ‘bait.’ Boyfriend idolized the latter, like Piggy had idolized Jack. Yet while this Jack dragged cataleptic young women back to his room, ‘seducing’ them with alcohol and drugs, Boyfriend’s antics, at first, stopped at the threshold— he was still ‘loyal’ to J. After all, she did all his laundry, cleaned their room, and cooked all of his meals for him.

Throughout this time, Boyfriend was lovely to the rest of the girls in the house. So sweet, so charming. Unsurprisingly, the high-pitched screams of pain coming from their room at first sounded like laughs to the rest of their housemates. Every night, they would hear J’s screaming and crying and Boyfriend’s shouting. Yet next morning the two would both act as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. The other girls asked J if anything was wrong— no. Yet one time, J had spent an entire night outside in the cold, too afraid to be in the same room as Boyfriend. J had nowhere to go, the rent on their shared room already having been paid, and she was too ashamed to tell anyone what was going on. Ashamed, as Boyfriend had told the rest of ‘his lads’ in their house that J had abused him: during one of their altercations, she hit him back with a pillow.

By the end of the year, things escalated, and Boyfriend allowed J to end their relationship— but, unfortunately, not before convincing her to sign for a house to live in alone with each other in their third year. Boyfriend, despite then dropping out of Durham over the summer, refused to take his name off their tenancy, and refused to pay any rent. One night a few months later when J was living alone at the new flat, Boyfriend suddenly returned from his summer away. He proceeded to abuse her verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually, and decided to stay in their flat for several months. J then went to the police.

After waiting for hours at the station, the police took down J’s testimony. Their first point of action was to inform Boyfriend that he was being investigated by them, as well as concerning what. J stayed at a friend’s house that night, as she was too afraid to go home. When she did eventually return, Boyfriend was so violently angry that he broke down the bedroom door in rage. The police then informed J that there was nothing they could do; if they arrested Boyfriend, she could get arrested too if Boyfriend said that she had been violent to him, since J had no concrete proof to the contrary. She had never mentioned the sexual abuse, as she had no evidence and felt too guilty. Getting a restraining order was out of her budget. So was the room that College offered her when she informed them of the situation. Boyfriend’s parents supported their son in his behavior, blaming J for breaking up with him. J was too afraid to tell her parents as she did not want to upset them. The landlord only cared that J paid for the fixing of the door that Boyfriend broke down. After several months, Boyfriend left, switching to psychologically abusing her via text. In a particular voice message, he even threatened to ‘slaughter’ her entire family. J had no support at all.

A recent study by the Telegraph found that out of the average 1 in 3 female students sexually assaulted, 97% did not report it to their universities. In many cases, however, as in J’s situation, there is simply no point in reporting abuse, as staff can often be completely unequipped to handle such situations.

This is precisely why It Happens Here Durham is an essential organisation. IHH is a community to which survivors and sufferers are able to turn to, that lets them know that they are not alone, that helps them, and allows their voices to be heard. In the past few months, IHH has also been branching the divide between the students and the university administration at the college level, having organised not only training sessions for IHH student members, but also having led workshops at several colleges— educating both students, mentors, and tutors about the nature of sexual violence, and discussing appropriate ways of dealing with victims and instances of sexual abuse at the senior college level. This is precisely what needs to be done; without support networks, counselling provisions, and advice from knowledgeable University authorities ready and able to take action, sufferers, in many cases, have no choice but to put up with on-going abuse, to laugh off sexual harassment— left to attempt to repress incidents of sexual abuse from their memories, to pretend that they never occurred.

The Language of Sexual Harassment, Assault, Violence and Rape

By Ali Linney

“She wanted it”, “I only touched her a bit”, “Groped”, “Penetrated”, “They didn’t say no.”

This blog post was difficult to write, not because I wasn’t impassioned, not because I didn’t have anything to say; but because there is such a breadth of things to write about that focusing on one particular area of sexual violence is hard, and limiting. However, the construct of language is something so inherent in any gender or sexual based violence that it’s hard to ignore and yet for a lot of people it doesn’t even get a second thought.

‘Grope’ . Look up a synonym for ‘Grope’: Fumble, Fondle, Finger, Caress, Molest.

Can you see the different connotations each of those words hold? Saying to a friend, ‘I was groped last night’ is completely different for many, to ‘I was caressed last night’, conversely saying ‘I was molested last night’ holds an entirely different connotation than any of the above. Yet they all apparently mean the same, they are all apparently equally ‘bad’, yet so many of them have been appropriated by perpetrators to purely generate an emotive response because apparently saying you ‘caressed’ somebody isn’t the same as groping them. Something so small, a synonym, can have repercussions far beyond the initial act: shame (‘it was only a grope’), friends and authoritative figures shunning the act (‘it wasn’t that bad, it was only a caress’) and denial.

Something as small as a word, our language, can minimise an act of assault or violence.

Think of the last one on the above list; ‘They didn’t say no’.

The victim might have been passed out, may have been restrained, and may have been embarrassed or ashamed, or maybe just felt that they could not speak out. Does that mean the lack of verbal response demonstrates it wasn’t assault or rape? Does something as inherent as the word ‘no’, muttered inaudibly or not at all, diminish the tremendous feelings for the victim? No. It doesn’t. Yet language comes into play here again; the police, friends, even the perpetrator can diminish your claim, your rights because of a word. A word that should be inherent in all sexual acts and meetings.

Think how often you say the word ‘no’ in a day, yet in this instance; the lack of it can decide trial fates, friendships, mental health and everything from the moment of the attack. One word can have repercussions for years, if not a lifetime.

What do we do about this though? How can we appropriate words that have been, for so long, used against victims of violence, harassment and assault? Will there ever be a time where saying you had been ‘groped’ will mean the same as being ‘molested’ or ‘attacked’?

I think, inherently, it comes down to perceptions of what constitutes ‘real’ assault. For so long in this society, people have held the belief that ‘real’ assault and violence is perpetrated by strangers, against young, scantily clad women, it is always violent, and it always ends in a police report. Considering the vast quantity of literature and statistics that prove the opposite, one would assume that society would begin to take words such as ‘grope’ and the lack of words such as ‘no’ and place them in the category of assault or violence without a second thought. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

So what can we do? Ultimately, the aim is to shift perceptions; to open people’s eyes to the language of assault – no matter the connotations, and to demonstrate that simply changing the synonym, doesn’t change the incident or the victims feelings for it. How can we achieve this? Organisations such as It Happens Here are doing just that; opening people’s eyes, helping people to understand and retaking language that for so long, has been appropriated by perpetrators, institutions and society to minimise assault, harassment and rape.

What Goes Unsaid

By Rosie Hodsdon (Guest blogpost)

Over the Easter holidays, I caught up with an older work colleague of mine over a coffee. Now, Starbucks may not be the typical place you’d imagine as a setting for a discussion about sexual assault, but our conversation somehow navigated in that direction, and it emerged soon that both of us had experienced incidents of sexual assault.

However, there was a second commonality between our two stories: both of us had been sexually assaulted by another woman.

In my case, I was eighteen years old. I had been in Durham for less than two weeks. She asked me out for drinks. I accepted. I believed I spent the night drinking orange juice and lemonade. We talked and enjoyed ourselves. And then, at a particular point, my memories become fragmented. I woke up the next morning in an unfamiliar house, not knowing where I was or how I had gotten there.

Later, they started to come back to me. I remember her boyfriend, but not his name. I remember being forced into acts I did not want to participate in. I remember using my safeword, and I remember both of them continuing. I remember drinking the only wine I’ve ever liked the taste of while I was crying afterwards.

The next day, she texted me to ask if I was okay.  I never replied.

When my colleague and I each discuss our own stories, it is not what we experienced that surprises people. People are not shocked by the fact that we were both forced to engage in sex acts against our will, or that we were intentionally incapacitated (both of us believe our drinks to have been spiked in our respective incidents), or even, in my case, the follow up from it; drinking wine and morning-after texts, as if this were any other normal, consensual sexual experience. What surprises them the most is that these acts were perpetrated, at least in part, by a woman.

The discourse that surrounds assault is often very much focused within a heterosexual and patriarchal power dynamic. Men are the perpetrators, and women are the victims. In doing this, the stories of those who do not fit within this particular frame are ignored, toned down, considered “less serious” than those which fit the assumed dynamic for most assault incidents.

It is worth questioning the assumptions that underpin the reasons behind why it is so much more shocking to have been assaulted by a woman. Is it because a person is perceiving women as weaker, incapable of violence themselves and instead are only on the receiving end? Is it because of the patriarchal power dynamic applied to sexual assault, in which men are the perpetrators and women are the victims; a theme often seen within even survivors networks, which serves to invalidate the experiences of those whose personal stories do not fit this cookie-cutter standard? The commonality of experience does not serve to encompass all, and in focusing solely on that one particular experience, it excludes all those who stories do not comply with that particular model.

Sexual assault is serious. This is not changed by the genders of those involved in an individual case. Whatever gender the perpetrator identifies as and whatever gender the victim identifies as does not affect the validity of the impact it has on a person. The underlying assumptions that permeate sexual assault discourse need to be reconsidered if the movement is to advocate for all those affected .

If what you encountered does not fit within the standard, prominent model that surrounds sexual assault, it does not lessen your experience. My story is just as valid as the next persons, and the next, and the next, regardless of the circumstances that surround it.

6 Ways to Fight Sexual Violence Every Day

By Emily Whiteside

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably just as anti-rape as I am. Most people are. But it’s not really enough to be anti-something in principle if you never do anything to fight it.

However, the system is stacked against us. “What can I do?” I hear you cry, “What difference can I make to the deeply rooted, misogynistic, societally-accepted rape culture we exist in?”

A huge one, actually. There are many things that you can do, every day, to help fight a system that trivializes, normalizes and accepts violence against women, and make Durham a safer place for everyone to live.
1. Educate yourself

The traditional rape narrative, the one that has been transmitted to us through countless media stories, TV shows and movies, is simple. There’s a scary, “crazy” man hiding in a dark alley, waiting to rape the first attractive white woman who has been stupid enough to walk by herself/be intoxicated/wear a short skirt (delete as applicable). I mean, what was she expecting, AMIRITE? She then ends up sitting with her head permanently in her hands and eventually becomes a stock photo used to illustrate articles about sexual assault.
This scaremongering, victim-blaming narrative is not representative of the vast majority of experiences of sexual assault. This misinformation feeds ignorance and makes people question anyone whose story doesn’t fit this pre-prescribed narrative.

If you have never experienced sexual assault, then you should try and educate yourself on the reality of the situation. Did you know that 1 in 7 women students experience a “serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student”? And that around 90% of sexual assault victims know their attackers?

Don’t shy away from words like ‘rape culture’ and ‘patriarchy’. Instead, do some research into what they are: why they exist, how they manifest themselves, and how this adversely affects a huge proportion of society.

Our website has resources to help you begin your initial research, our Twitter account and Facebook page regularly post links that you can use to further educate yourself, and we’re planning to run an awareness-raising campaign next term that you can look out for. You’ll have to be prepared to do some work by yourself – and to critically appraise how sexual assault is covered on platforms like mainstream media – but there is no excuse to be ignorant about a topic that affects so many people.
2. Call out those around you

Pop quiz – over well-earned revision drinks at the New Inn, on the topic of the all-too-common phenomenon that is being groped in Klute, a friend says “Did you see her skirt though? She was definitely asking for it.”
Do you –
a) Take a long sip of your Kopparberg and pretend not to hear
b) Raise your eyebrows and look disapprovingly at the floor
c) Turn to your friend and say “Actually, the only time someone is asking for something is if they are LITERALLY ASKING YOU FOR IT.” Please don’t excuse that kind of behaviour, it’s sexual harassment.”

People often let their friends get away with ignorant and offensive comments because calling them out on it would just be awkward and make you look like a killjoy and after all it was just one joke!

Don’t let other people think it’s acceptable to make abusive and hurtful comments or jokes about sexual violence.
Firstly, there may be someone sitting in the group who has experienced sexual violence him- or herself: in fact, this is statistically likely (1 in every 7 women students is one woman per freshers’ corridor, as Ben, the Mildert Welfare Officer, has very astutely pointed out). Insensitive comments about rape can be isolating and upsetting for those who have experienced sexual violence.
Secondly, if you listen passively to somebody making offensive statements and you say nothing, even if alarm bells are going off in your head, then to that person, you are agreeing. And if they believe that other people condone their opinions, their behaviour is more likely to be modeled on their ‘jokes’.

If you are a man, you can use your privilege to challenge these kinds of opinions from friends and other people around you – but if a woman is challenging it herself, don’t feel the need to ‘rescue’ her. I cannot speak for all feminists, but I personally will only bash you with your privilege if you are completely oblivious to it and fail to use it for anything productive.
3. Support survivors

One startling feature of rape culture is the automatic suspicion towards survivors of sexual violence. This mistrust completely unfounded – studies have estimated the proportion of rape allegations that are false is as small as 3%. In fact, a man is more likely to be sexually assaulted himself in his life than to be falsely accused of rape.

Women have very little reason to ever lie about being sexual assaulted – especially given how society treats those who accuse their attackers. Yet despite this, those who have experienced sexual violence are automatically disbelieved, doubted and questioned. Being sexual assaulted can be a horrific experience, and being brave enough to speak up about it, only to be pulled apart based on something as insignificant as what you were wearing or drinking, leads to a culture where speaking out against sexual violence is taboo, and perpetrators keep getting away with it.

Don’t contribute to the no-platforming of survivors through questioning their decisions or doubting their story. Don’t make the subject taboo. Read the accounts of sexual violence on our website. Take somebody speaking about their experiences seriously. If a friend discloses an experience of sexual violence to you, you can use the ‘Support a Friend’ link on our website for advice on how to help them.
4. Demand policy change

Your quality of student life at Durham University will be better if policies are in place to prevent and appropriately deal with sexual violence at both a college and university level.
Anti-sexual violence motions have been passed by my own JCR, Van Mildert, and at other colleges like Chad’s SCR, which are a great step.
If your college doesn’t have an anti-sexual violence motion, consider writing your President or Welfare Officer an email proposing one. We have a template motion that you can use if you get in contact with us. If your college hasn’t been involved with IHH, why don’t you invite us to run an information stall, talk or workshop? As Senior Freps university-wide begin planning for Freshers’ Week, why don’t you get in contact with them to ask about their ideas for consent workshops?

Change needs to happen at a wider institutional level too. The DSU passed a motion before Christmas condemning sexual violence, but the university currently has no official policy on sexual violence, no training for its staff on how to deal with it, and no real consequences for perpetrators.

I’m not saying every student at Durham should up and abandon their degrees, staging a sit-in in the Palatine Centre until the Vice Chancellor agrees to make a change. Although that would be great. But letting the university know that you are dissatisfied with policies affecting your safety and well-being while at university is your right as a student who pays (exorbitant) fees to be here. Whether this is through your Student Union Reps in college, your Community Officer at the DSU or an email right to the top, making your voice heard is a critical part of making change. Speaking of, remember to vote.
5. Join It Happens Here!

I know, I know, shameless plug. But the easiest way to fight something is to be at the centre of the action, and if you’re passionate about ending sexual violence then get in touch.
You can commit as much, or as little, time as you want, and choose to get involved with things that interest you – whether it be social media, running college events, signposting and advice, or designing campaigns. We welcome women and men, those who have experienced sexual violence and those who have not.
6. Don’t rape

It’s not fucking difficult.
If someone says no, don’t touch them.
If someone is acting uncomfortable, stop doing whatever you’re doing.
If someone is too drunk to consent, do not rape them.
If someone is not ACTIVELY, ENTHUSIASTICALLY, WILLINGLY consenting, then back the fuck off.
It’s not difficult, but apparently it still needs to be said.