University; it’s supposed to be the time of your life, right? From opportunities like being able to live independently, meeting a multitude of new friends from all over the globe, or having the chance to attend lectures that inspire you to pursue your dream career, going to university is seen by many young people as a shining beacon of hope. Having spent years plodding (albeit it often reluctantly towards the end) along the seemingly endless production line of lower education, reaching a university such as St Andrews endows to many a fresh sense of motivation. And so, we pack our bags, say our goodbyes and flinging ourselves into the world with eager smiles, towers of books and far too many new highlighters.
But coming to university is hardly ever perfect. To feed into the hypothetical scenario above would not only be idealistic, but also dismissive of the many challenges often encountered by students during this brief yet difficult period. While attending university is not all-bad, many young people find themselves juggling a variety of challenging situations; from instances of racism, homophobia or bullying, being a student is rarely easy. Whether you are smack-bang in the centre of London, or nestled away on the coastline of Scotland, unsavory and unacceptable actions, world views, or behaviors are spread far and wide across the UK.
But one thing – if contemplating our current international social climate – stands out like a sore thumb to me; sexual assault and harassment, often coined as “sexual violence” in an umbrella-like manner. Whether it be reports of rape on television, Instagram feeds plastered with the #MeToo movement or opening a newspaper only to see Bre Kavanaugh’s face stretched across the front page, it is clear that discourse surrounding the issue of sexual violence is growing.
This is inherently a good thing. Sexual assault, defined as unwanted sexual acts via contact (such as rape) or emotional/psychological violations inflicted upon someone without their consent, and sexual harassment, defined as unwanted sexual advances or requests (often demanded in ex- change for favours – e.g. within a workplace or educational setting) are absolutely and totally unacceptable. Not only are they crimes committed by one human against another, but such actions damage – both physically and mentally – their victims to a hugely upsetting degree. Victims often find their entire lives changed due to actions of sexual violence, and many never recover from their experiences. After experiencing such violations, individuals may feel the need to drop out of work, school, or university in order to seek professional help; even after this the psychological trauma or lifelong physical injuries obtained from the discussed violations may result in the emergence of self-harming behaviour, depression/ anxiety, or even blaming themselves for the crime committed against them. And this, to put it simply, is not ok.
In relation to university, sexual violence is no different – wherever you choose to read your particular subject, the risk of being sexually assaulted or harassed is just as dire. While larger cities may have more instances of sexual violence committed against students living within their confines due to their sheer size, universities located in smaller locations, such as St Andrews, are not exempt. From being harassed and forcibly asked to slide across someone’s lap in a sexual manner in order to exit a seat, to being catcalled and spat at for wearing a short skirt, to being groped inappropriately, stories of sexually-motivated violence and unacceptable acts are being talked about in the community. A fellow student describes their experience as an, “exhausting” ordeal that left them “completely unaware of the destruction I’d endured.’ And the sad thing is, there will be many more, but simply unheard. Readers may also recall accounts of an eighteen year old student being indecently assaulted in St Andrews in 2014 (as re-ported by the BBC for Edinburgh, Fife and East Scotland), or perhaps the ‘Miss M’ rape case. The truth, which is often a very difficult and harrowing pill to swallow, is that acts of sexual violence are committed all over the globe, even in our sleepy little town.
According to RapeCrisis Scotland, sexual crimes have been on the increase from 1974 – between 2011/12 and 2016/17, sexual crime rose a staggering 47% in Scotland alone. With our ever advancing technologies, it is now easier for crimes such as sexual harassment to be committed – in the second it takes to send an indecent, unwanted picture, an individual can be mentally and emotionally damaged for life. Even more harrowing is the sheer accessibility of social media; from Facebook to Instagram, or to messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, indecent images, messages, and threats can be sent to victims at an incredibly rapid rate. For students, and indeed most young people, who spend the majority of their days on their laptops, phones, and tablets, this is particularly scary.
Headed by Ailsa Ritchie (Director of Student Services) and Claire Hillson (Student Conduct Officer of Registry) the university has a lot to offer with regards to the issues discussed. Student Services, and indeed the University as a whole, can be described as a “first port of call” for students affected by sexual harassment or abuse. There is a plethora of support available; from consent-related workshops to discrete and specially designed cards that students can hand into Student Services or any member of staff to indicate they wish to discuss a matter of sexual violence; to the University’s zero-tolerance policy and the ‘Advise, Inform, Guide’ notebooks containing vital information about how to report, or simply talk about, sexual violence that all incoming students now receive, there are a number of options victims can choose through which to discuss the crimes committed against them.
Importantly, both Student Services and Registry are committed to two fundamental principles – trust and discretion. Whether you wish to talk to a professional at Student Services as a means of managing your mental health after the crime, or wish to report the individual who harmed you via Registry (who, through Claire, promise to “always respond to any report”), anything you choose to speak about will be treated with the strictest professionalism, confidentiality, and care. With the added security of a guaranteed Conduct Risk Assessment in order to ensure your personal safety and guidance on how to approach the police if you wish to, it is clear that St Andrews take instances of sexual violence very seriously.
But vitally, it is important to note that the University will never force your hand; with both Ailsa and Claire describing their roles as centralised around a ‘duty of care’, the only instance in which action may be taken beyond your control is if they deem the situation, or individuals within the situation, a risk to themselves or others. As described by Ailsa, “the most important thing is the student” and the ability for that student to have total control over the situation.
So, what can we as a student body do? We need to talk. We need to express our unhappiness at incidences of sexual violence that may occur here, and we need to create a dialogue. Whether this be through attending a consent workshop, hosting talks, promoting or posting articles about what defines sexual assault/harassment and how to get help, writing about or expressing your thoughts on the subject via blogs/posters, getting into contact with people like Ailsa and Claire to find out more, all forms are valid and help to keep our university safe. Most importantly, we need to put our (collective) foot down – not here and not anywhere will sexual violence ever be tolerated.