Sexual violence survivors need support, not even more trauma

In handling cases, UK universities must clarify the burden of evidence, better train adjudicators and publish incidence statistics, says one survivor

December 9, 2020
concept image of a woman standing in a maze of large confusing blocks.
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You build up the courage to ask a senior colleague whether you should report it. You’ve told other, more junior, colleagues, and they support you. You don’t know how the process works – or where the form is, how long it takes or what you’ll be expected to do. The administrator is encouraging, though. The university will protect you. And there are other survivors of sexual violence who have made complaints about the same person. Data protection rules prevent you making contact, but it’s good that you will be one of many.

But then the problems come.

Sorry for the delay. We don’t investigate these incidents; it wouldn’t be fair. Gather your own evidence. What do you mean, you don’t think that’s right? Send your documentation yesterday. Well, his account – he’s had yours for months and we gave him until today to respond – says you’re lying. How can we possibly know who to believe? Your multiple statements, alongside other staff accounts corroborating your story, are not enough. Messages from him apologising and screen shots of him harassing you on social media are not enough. No, wait, we do believe you. That’s not what we meant. But we’re not taking action against him. Have you tried counselling?

If this story sounds familiar, it is because academia just works this way. There are thousands of staff and students on UK university campuses alone who, as victims of sexual violence, have experienced the bureaucratic horror of making a complaint – and the trauma of an utterly unsatisfactory resolution after the perpetrator has made false statements about you in his statement with impunity.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have escaped this nightmare of neoliberal doublethink (“we have robust policies to prevent sexual violence so this can’t have happened to you”), you probably know someone who has lived through it. They’ve cried in your office. Or they’ve just stopped coming into work; you wonder vaguely why, but your increased workload means you don’t have time to ask. Your department just received its Athena SWAN award, so everything must be OK.

But everything is not OK. Staff and student survivors seek community justice for the sexual violence committed against them by mostly male staff and students, and universities not only fail to act, but also enable the abuses to continue. Perpetrators win grants and graduate with honours, while victims are silenced and forced out of their jobs or studies.

Since going public with my stories earlier this year, I have received hundreds of disclosures from survivors at an astonishing number of institutions. The pattern is always the same: marginalised people (mostly women) are disproportionately targeted by abusers; their lives are endangered by false promises and inaction by universities; and they are further harmed by inadequate legal support. Survivor mental health is precarious. We are, all too often, bullied by universities and harassed by abusers into keeping quiet.

Until, of course, another groundswell of revelations appears on social media and in the press. #MeToo brought forth a wave of stories that enabled us to find solidarity with one another. Then #TimesUpAcademia appeared in 2018. There have even been high-profile cases in the news, followed by internal reviews, official statements and reports of “lessons learned”. But then it happens again.

Of course, there are organisations already making headway in this area. In the UK, there is the 1752 Group, the EmilyTest and the Revolt Sexual Assault campaign. But there is a long way to go. As Sara Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, it is the complainant that becomes the problem, not the violence that necessitated the complaint itself. And despite the best efforts of the survivors who find a platform to speak out, that doesn’t seem to change. Which leads to the million-dollar question: what can we do?

University senior management teams cannot be expected to solve societal problems of endemic sexual violence. However, they can get their houses in order and use their successes to lobby those in power for change. A good start might be clear guidelines about interpersonal relationships and consent training for all staff and students. Paying trained survivors to shape survivor-centred policies would ensure that our voices were at the heart of community justice efforts.

Survivors navigating often opaque processes would benefit hugely if the burden of evidence for believability were made clear, if the staff who adjudicate sexual violence cases were properly and regularly trained, and if statistics on the incidence of sexual violence on campuses were published. And applying sanctions against perpetrators would signal to survivors that maybe, just maybe, their lives are valued by institutions after all.

Everyone in our community needs to take responsibility for bearing witness and remembering to support survivors exhausted by deliberately difficult justice procedures. Everyone needs to challenge reporting policies that protect institutions rather than victims. And everyone – including women – needs to start living a feminist life (which means doing more than merely citing Ahmed’s work).

Together, we can act. If we are the problem, so be it; let’s become a bigger one. We can and should make the sector’s fear of “reputational damage” work for us, rather than risk another lost generation whose lives are harmed, rather than enriched, by their university experiences.

More of us – all of us, survivors or not – must turn waves of revelations into tides of protest and resistance if we are ever to see justice.

The author is a UK academic. She has waived her fee to make the article open access.

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