Students are turning to anonymous Instagram accounts to report their experiences of sexual assault at uni
Nine Instagram accounts have been set up at top British universities, including St Andrews, Edinburgh, and Durham
Every university has a sexual assault problem. The world has a sexual assault problem. But what do Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Stirling, Lincoln, Robert Gordon, Queen’s University Belfast, Brighton and Durham University have in common? Their students are so sick of what they perceive to be a culture of sexual assault at uni that they’ve taken it into their own hands to solve it. With hundreds to thousands of followers each, all of these unis now have anonymous, student-run Instagram pages dedicated to reporting alleged sexual assaults and telling survivors’ stories. Their names are homogeneous: Lincs Anonymous, Edi Anonymous, St Andrews Survivors, Durham Survivors, etc. All pages follow the same template, look the same, and the stories are often upsettingly similar.
Which is exactly what inspired these accounts in the first place. The first of its kind in the UK, St Andrews Survivors was established because its admins decided they were sick of hearing multiple stories of assault with the same perpetrator, or the same pattern of behaviour, yet knowing nothing had been done about it. So, they vowed to make a change. “I am so tired of sexual assault being treated like casual gossip,” the St Andrews Survivors founder told The Independent in August.
But this gossip is bolstered with facts. According to The Guardian, more than half (56 per cent) of UK students have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in their time at uni. A recent study of 500 King’s College London students conducted by The King’s Tab revealed that one-third of King’s students had experienced unwanted sexual advances while in campus venues, and 88 per cent of students were unaware of how to report said advances. It makes sense, then, that when these anonymous accounts pop up they are instantly flooded with submissions. St Andrews Survivors account received 115 submissions within the first 48 hours of going live.
“Despite sexual violence being exceptionally common at Universities, I don’t believe it is addressed nearly enough and still carries a certain sense of shame or guilt for survivors who do speak out about it,” the admin of Edi Anonymous told The Tab. “I think it’s important to remember that survivors often find it difficult enough to tell their story to a close friend, let alone someone they view as an authoritative figure, such as a University worker, particularly if they are still unsure as to whether they want to report it. I think what’s fundamental to the account’s success is that it is completely anonymous.”
The submissions are converted into sleek posts, swipeable and filled with text, complete with trigger warnings, and personalised logos. St Andrews Survivors may have been the first in the UK, but its blueprints came from similar accounts in the US. “The whole idea came from the Black Lives Matter movement and accounts in the US where black students were submitting their experiences of discrimination and mistreatment at their unis,” Anna*, a St Andrews Survivors admin, told The Tab.
Via @racisminsomers, an Instagram page dedicated to exposing incidents of racism in Somers, Connecticut, USA
The accounts actively discourage any identification of the alleged perpetrators of sexual assault. The Edi Anonymous account submission guidelines advise students to withhold names and “only include a maximum of one recognisable feature” in the submission. The purpose of these pages is not vigilantism. They are a safe space for survivors of sexual assault to be open about their experiences.
Open – to an extent. While these pages spare no detail in the story, experience, and trauma aspects of sexual assaults, a key part of their premise is anonymity. It is rule number one and two of the anon Insta reporting Fight Club: no names. Whether that be survivors, perpetrators, or admins – no first or surname is revealed at any point. When speaking to The Tab, St Andrews Survivors detailed the reasons for this clearly: sexual assault shouldn’t define anyone.
“I’m a survivor,” Anna says, “but no one at St Andrews knows I’m a survivor.” (All of these Instagram accounts and their admins use the term ‘survivor’ over ‘victim’ as they feel the term is more empowering). “I’m not ready for people to know that yet and I don’t want this [page] to be how that comes out.” Olivia*, another admin of the SAS page, agrees. “It allows us a little bit of protection, so we don’t become the public face for sexual assault stories.”
There’s another reason for anonymity too. As you can expect, student-led Instagram pages exposing the culture of sexual assault at specific UK unis don’t exactly scream “good PR”. In other words: unis don’t like them. “Our conversations with the uni haven’t always been the friendliest, for sure”, Anna says. She’s referring to the ongoing correspondence between the University of St Andrews and the St Andrews Survivors page, which has been… “difficult”. Most recently, the uni recommended a process of mediation for the page and the uni to enter into together, but the SAS admins found this inappropriate. Firstly, they noted, mediation is for when “someone has done something wrong”. They don’t think the St Andrews Survivors page has done anything wrong. Additionally, one condition of mediation proposed by the university was complete confidentiality; they asked the admins to keep all conversations between themselves and the uni during mediation private. The admins disagreed, saying if the uni’s interests were pure, they would be fine to have correspondence published.
Since then, the prospect of mediation has been scrapped and St Andrews Survivors have made all of their emails with the university public. When asked about the disagreement and whether the University was considering changing its reporting system, a University of St Andrews spokesperson told The Tab: “Our challenge is to create a culture in which students have the confidence to report sexual misconduct, knowing they will be taken seriously and receive the best possible support. We want Survivors to come forward and get help, secure in the knowledge that we will listen without rushing to judgement, solutions, or taking control away from them.”
St Andrews’ response to the account and ensuing correspondence with SAS has been by far the most hands-on out of all the unis that are aware of these such accounts. Perhaps on account of it being the first, or the biggest (SAS has nearly 6000 followers, other accounts are between the hundreds to low thousands). Because of this, its admins doubled down on anonymity for fear of retribution from the university, or isolation from their societies and groups. Other universities are more unperturbed and have simply allowed the accounts to exist and post with no interference from the uni. This, naturally, means admins are less paranoid about their identities being leaked. Rebekah, founder of Lincs Anonymous – the page available to students living in Lincoln – was the only admin comfortable being named. She’s also one of the admins who’s had zero contact with her uni since setting up the page. Go figure.
Rebekah doesn’t just have an issue with Lincoln, she thinks its an issue for all UK unis. “Universities just aren’t doing enough to raise awareness about the sexual assault problem on campus,” she told The Tab. “Lad culture and uni culture is often toxic. It definitely needs to change. Consent needs to be discussed way more to do this though, and other parts of consent – such coercion, which doesn’t equal consent.”
A selection of recent posts from Lincs Anonymous, which is run by Rebekah and her team of admins
“Before I started this account, I didn’t even know the true extent [of sexual assault on campus] myself. Although it’s shocking and sometimes triggering, it’s definitely the best way to spread awareness so more universities take action.”
While Rebekah may not have had to go through a St Andrews Survivors-esque back and forth with the uni, Lincoln is aware of the account, and they aren’t thrilled. In a statement to The Tab a spokesperson for The University of Lincoln (the main university in the city of Lincoln), said: “We are aware of anonymous reporting websites, although well-intentioned there is potential to re-harm survivors with unverified accounts and often no signposting to professional support.
“We have confidential reporting systems and extensive support services in place for our students, including independent advice and confidential counselling services.”
It’s given that these pages have issues with their respective universities’ sexual assault reporting systems, and that, in turn, unis have issues with the page’s existence. But they’re not seeking to replace these systems, rather, reform them and validate victims while they do so. The St Andrews Survivors have produced a full document of changes they want to observe at their university, including mandatory Moodle classes on consent, warden training, and the establishment of an anonymous reporting system.
But even with these changes, the admins of these pages are aware the problem is more than just institutional. “There’s always going to be cases of sexual assault,” the admin of Edi Anonymous told The Tab, “but what’s worrying is how common it has become within the student community in particular. Of course, in an ideal world, we would like to have no stories being submitted, but we’d rather have to run the account and make it available to those that need it than simply avoid the issue.”
This is the secondary function of the account: it is a support system. The SAS admins stressed to me that their goal was to help every single person who submits to the page, whether it be with guidance, signposting to resources, or simply reassurance that what they went through was sexual assault and deserves to be treated as such. But with 57 submissions a day for some accounts, the admins – most of whom are survivors themselves – risk being pulled beneath the tide. St Andrews Survivors fell from nine admins at its peak to just four now, because people found it hard to deal with the neverending influx of alleged sexual assault stories. “It’s a big burden and everyone has their own triggers”, Anna says. But in the trauma admins have been forced to sift through, they’ve found comfort and solace for their own experiences. “It’s actually been really healing too,” Olivia told The Tab. “Helping others has helped me with my own experience. To take something that was really negative and use that perspective to care for others has been so good for me in so many ways.”
It’s implicit that these accounts are made by women, for women, but that’s not strictly the case. The last time the St Andrews Survivors checked their Instagram statistics, their breakdown was 73 per cent female followers and 27 per cent male. Edi Anonymous claims their breakdown is similar, and Lincs Anonymous told The Tab their account has a “good spread of male and female” followers. Not only do men care enough about the submissions to follow the pages – men are submitting them. “We’ve had at least ten submissions from men that I can think of,” Olivia said of the St Andrews Survivors page. And the submissions from men have featured both male on male assault, and female on male assault. “This is really important to see,” Anna adds, “because when people see a story of sexual violence where the victim is male, they think ‘well it can only happen to a guy if the perpetrator is a guy’. But it really can happen to all genders, by all genders.”
And while the majority of these pages’ admins are female survivors, one admin is an exception to this rule. Mike*, one half of Edi Anonymous, is a male student who has never experienced sexual assault. But Ellie*, his co-admin, has no doubt in Mike’s ability to run the account alongside her because he helped her recover from her own sexual assault. She told The Tab: “I have told a few of my friends about my own experience [of sexual assault] but [Mike] has been one of the best at helping me to work through everything and I knew early on in our friendship that I could trust him completely.
“When I told him I was running the account, his reaction was so supportive that when he offered to help out, I didn’t even have to consider whether I could trust him in that respect. Even though he has not directly experienced sexual violence, he is just as motivated to help combat the issue on campus and diminish the reputation that can often surround male students from sports clubs/societies.” (A spokesperson for The University of Edinburgh told The Tab that the uni has no tolerance for sexual violence and all reports to the uni are taken seriously.)
A selection of Edi Anonymous posts. The account now has over 1,900 followers
Like Edi Anonymous, the majority of these pages have more than one admin due to the mass of submissions and the emotional toll of the role. However, admins won’t hand over control to just anyone. Each admin addition is a threat to the anonymity of existing admins – so adding new people in isn’t an easy process. Ellie told me she hopes to carry on Edi Anonymous with just her co-admin for as long as she can, to avoid risking her and her co-admins privacy. The problem is that all of these accounts were established in July or later – out of term time, off-campus, and when students were working remotely from their homes. Only time will tell how many admins could be required when students are back on campus, living, drinking, and coexisting together again. Plus, with term restarting, pages will have to deal with the responsibility of current day submissions.
When established in the summer, many of the submissions these accounts received were experiences that happened weeks, months or years before they were submitted. Now, with a fresh term and students back in halls, bars, and student houses, the nature of their submissions is set to change. This might force anonymous reporting pages to have more contact with their universities than they initially desired, but it just might be the future of sexual assault reporting in higher education.
As much as unis might wish it, these accounts aren’t going away. Not everyone wants to use their reporting process, and they need to consider why this might be. More and more of these accounts are cropping up every day at different unis. Just while writing this, the total number of accounts rose from eight to nine. And term hasn’t even started yet. UK unis should be taking stock of how they deal with sexual assault, because students haven’t been happy for a while – now there’s just an Instagram account to prove it.
*Names have been changed to provide anonymity.
Full responses from The University of St Andrews, The University of Lincoln and The University of Edinburgh can be seen below:
A spokeswoman for the University of St Andrews said: “Our challenge is to create a culture in which students have the confidence to report sexual misconduct, knowing they will be taken seriously and receive the best possible support.
“Along with long-term prevention and cultural change programmes, the University has been working with student representatives, staff, unions, and support services to ensure we have transparent procedures for managing complaints of sexual misconduct, which prioritise safety and wellbeing. Last year we received eleven reports of sexual misconduct, each of which was addressed according to these procedures.
“The University has no locus to investigate in place of the Police, but we facilitate and support reporting to the Police. We will also undertake a Conduct Risk Assessment. This is not part of a disciplinary process, but is intended to ensure student safety. We will also help survivors who choose to pursue disciplinary action, if the Police are not investigating, to achieve fair outcomes.
“The most important thing is we want Survivors to come forward and get help, secure in the knowledge that we will listen without rushing to judgement, solutions or taking control away from them.”
A spokesperson for the University of Lincoln, said: “Nobody should have to endure harassment, abuse or violence and we would encourage anyone who does experience inappropriate behaviour, wherever this occurs, to report it and seek specialist support. We are aware of anonymous reporting websites, although well intentioned there is potential to re-harm survivors with unverified accounts and often no signposting to professional support.
“We have confidential reporting systems and extensive support services in place for our students, including independent advice and confidential counselling services, and we liaise regularly with local authorities and agencies, including the police.”
A spokesman for the University of Edinburgh said: “The University does not tolerate sexual violence within its community, and takes any reports very seriously. Where a student tells us about their experience, we offer support to help them understand their options, including approaching the Police and/or reporting the matter formally through the appropriate University route.
“A range of confidential help and support is available for anyone affected, with the Students’ Association Advice Place providing frontline support for those who have experienced sexual violence, harassment, or assault.”