Sexual Violence Among Students
This article is pending translation.
It's freshers' week at many universities. Welcome to university life. By the time, a few years from now, when all those freshers will have graduated, a quarter of the women among them will have been sexually assaulted, according to a personal safety awareness video.
I am shocked and horrified. Can that possibly be accurate? The answer is yes and no. But first, watch the video on the right.
It is meant to grab your attention, and it does. But where does the number come from? How big is the problem? What does it all mean? I decided to find out. Just a word of warning: this article gets explicit and may not be comfortable reading matter.
Definitions: Assault And Rape
First of all, I realise, I need to clean up the language. What is "sexual assault"? I hear those words and it sounds like legalese for "rape". In fact, it is a separate crime entirely.
Sexual assault, according to the law, is when a person intentionally touches another person in a sexual way, without consent, and without reasonable expectation of consent. This can include things like unwanted kissing, groping or touching. It can also mean an intrusive physical assault of a sexual nature that stops short of rape, so it is a term covering conduct that ranges from socially unacceptable to incredibly harmful. As a crime, it can attract prison sentences of up to 10 years - but also prison sentences that are below six months.
Rape, according to the law is exactly what you would expect: penetration of a person's mouth, vagina or anus with a penis, without consent. The maximum prison sentence for a person convicted of rape is a life sentence (There are other offences such as "assault by penetration", if an object or body part other than a penis is used).
The Scale Of The Problem
The video at the top of this article states that one in four women "experience sexual assault during their time as a student". The likeliest source for this claim is the Hidden Marks survey, which showed that 75% of female students had "no unwanted sexual experience", while 25% did suffer unwanted experiences during their time at university.
The Hidden Marks survey was an online survey carried out by the National Union of Students in 2010. It was filled in by 2058 women students across the UK, of whom 1792 offered responses to questions about sexual violence. On page 17 of the report, it lists that:
- 5% of women students had been raped while studying at university
- 2% of women students had experienced an attempted rape
- 16% of women students had experienced "unwanted sexual contact", which was specifically defined to "include kissing, touching or molesting, including through clothes"
- 1.4% of women students had experienced other unwanted sexual experiences
This adds up to almost 25% - the "one in four" figure. It does, however, cover a huge spectrum, ranging from "sexual assault" to "rape". As unacceptable as it may be, an unwanted kiss is not comparable to rape or attempted rape - but neither can we assume that the "unwanted sexual contact" category consists mainly of unwanted kisses.
What Do The Numbers Mean For You?
This is where we have some good news, some bad news, and some worse news.
The good news is that the likelihood of becoming a victim of rape or attempted rape while studying at university is much lower for any female student than the "one in four" figure that is often mentioned (for a male student, it is much lower still).
The bad news is that the actual number is big enough to have a significant impact on many lives and society as a whole. Don't apply the risk just to one person, but apply it to your circle of friends. For example, if you have 100 friends on Facebook who are going to universities around the UK, and 50 of them are female, then the numbers quoted above suggest that, on average, two of those friends would become the victims of rape by the time everyone has graduated, and a third would experience an attempted rape. On average, none of them would ever report this to the police, but they might talk to friends or family about their experiences (54% talked to someone, according to the Hidden Marks survey, but 90% did not report it to the police). Oh, and about eight of those 50 female friends would get sexually assaulted - kissed against their will, groped, touched up, or worse.
The rapists, in the vast majority of cases, would be known to the victims: acquaintances, friends or (ex-)boyfriends. Those hypothetical 100 average Facebook friends? Unbeknownst to you, the rapists would probably be on your friends list, too. "Stranger danger" shouldn't be ignored, but one of the most tragic and important things to understand is that sexual violence is something that mostly happens between people who know each other. The Hidden Marks survey also shows that the majority of the men committing the crimes would be students, too.
The worse news is that we are only talking about 3-5 years in a woman's life here. Some statistics claim that, in the UK, 25% of women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Suddenly, we've arrived back at that number, "one in four". This figure comes from a survey conducted in 1991, filled in by 1007 married women in Northern England, called Wife Rape, Marriage & The Law by Kate Painter. It's over 20 years old, and at the time of the survey, it was not against the law for husbands to rape their wives. The figure is out of date, quite regional, and from a smaller sample than the Hidden Marks survey, so I like to tell myself that things probably have improved since then. Still, whatever the actual percentage of women who experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, it's at least 10% (the number from the British Crime Survey 1997, which is widely regarded as under-reporting the true figure), and could be as large as 25%. One study (based on the British Crime Survey 2002) estimates that 47,000 women suffer rape or attempted rape in the UK each year.
Consent And Alcohol
The statistics above are about unwanted sexual encounters. Most legal definitions talk of consent or a "reasonable expectation of consent".
Below, there is an interactive video about consent, produced by The Havens – London-based centres that offer support to victims of sexual violence. If you interact with it, the video will open new windows in your browser. [Sub-Ed Note: The video contains images that some may find distressful]
Legally, a person consents if the person "agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice". The Crown Prosecution Service guidance about consent explains the issues and specifically addresses "voluntary intoxication" as one of the factors that can diminish the capacity to make choices – and therefore, make consent impossible.
In other words, the crime of rape does not only cover situations where a person fights back or objects. If a person is drunk (or otherwise intoxicated) to a point where they lose the (mental) capacity to make a choice, intercourse with that person constitutes rape and is a crime. This can include situations where the person is awake, but too intoxicated to have the capacity for consent.
What About Men?
Sexual violence against men is also a problem. The Survivors UK charity estimates that about 3% of men experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. The number means that men are much safer from sexual violence than women, but not entirely safe.
Aside from sexual violence, men are much more likely to become the victims of violent crime than women. So, personal safety advice is as relevant and important to men: avoiding walking through a city alone in darkness, and avoiding isolated/quiet areas at night is not just useful for women who don't want to be raped, but useful to men who should be protecting themselves from violent attacks and robberies.
Sometimes, campaigners against sexual violence point out that society invests a lot of effort in advising women how to avoid getting raped, but not enough effort in changing underlying attitudes among some men. Here's a protest banner that sums up the point:
Well, surely it's obvious to every man that one should not rape anyone, yes?
It is. Except, there are those who make excuses for rapists. For example, you've probably heard the recent controversial quote by George Galloway, made in his podcast about Julian Assange: "Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion". Classy. Real classy.
Legally and morally, yes, everybody needs to give consent prior to each "insertion". Or, as Louise Mensch put it, in probably the only article of hers I'll ever agree with, "Sexual consent is not football; you can't buy a season ticket."
Another example of problem attitudes would be the recent case against two footballers, which resulted in mixed verdicts. There were problematic attitudes evident on trial and among fans of the footballers, ultimately resulting in the (illegal) naming of the victim. Much of the case dealt with the complexities around the issue of consent under the influence of alcohol. It is not a good or healthy attitude towards sex to exploit other people when they are very badly drunk, and casual intercourse with drunk people could, in some situations, lead to prosecutions and prison sentences, if they were too drunk to be able to consent. It's also pretty darn ungentlemanly.
Some campaign groups, such as the Men Can Stop Rape organisation in America or the White Ribbon Campaign, believe that one effective way to change things is for men to never ignore or laugh along with their mates' conduct if it starts being harmful and offensive.
Personally, I believe the way any change starts is with information and with understanding. When I started looking into this, and thought that sexual assaults were a polite way of saying rape, I didn't believe the number. Now that I know what the actual statistic for rapes (and sexual assaults) among students are, I do believe them. When I apply those statistics to my friends list, I can see that, yes, there is a problem.
It's not a small problem - but neither is it hopeless.
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IMAGE: Shira Golding