This photographer has documented 16 women’s experiences of sexual harrassment at uni
‘I was constantly on edge’
One in five female students are sexually assaulted during their time at university, according to a recent survey. And that’s just one statistic. At Sussex University, a survey found that as many as two-thirds of students have been subject to unwelcome sexual advances during their time at uni. So after you’re assaulted at uni, where do you turn? Many students don’t know how to report sexual assault at their universities, and even if they do, cases can take months to be resolved. This has lead to students fending for themselves, setting up anonymous Instagram accounts to try and take the reporting and healing process into their own hands.
That’s the reality of being a woman at university. In fact, much of this is the reality of being a woman in any setting. London based photographer and founder of @CheerUpLuv, Eliza Hatch, knows this better than perhaps anyone else.
Eliza founded Cheer Up Luv, the Instagram project turned award-winning photo campaign documenting women and non-binary people’s stories of street harassment, in 2017. Over three years she has been speaking to women and non-binary people about their personal, intimate, and all too common experiences of sexism – from harassment by men on the street to sexual assault.
This month, Eliza turned her attention to university students. In a campaign partnered with Our Streets Now and UNWomenUK, she is sharing individual experiences of harassment at universities each day for 16 days. “There’s definitely a sense of vulnerability with being at university, especially if you are new and trying to make friends, that can make experiencing sexual harassment very isolating,” she told The Tab.
“I’ve also heard many experiences of people’s sexual harassment claims being mismanaged, and universities not taking appropriate action after someone has reported an incident. If our experiences aren’t taken seriously, or the process of reporting doesn’t work, then it creates a culture of silencing victims, and allowing perpetrators a free pass.
“The culture of silencing victims is something that needs to be left in the bin with the rest of 2020. It’s honestly so tiring that this rhetoric is still being peddled by large universities with significant responsibility to make their students feel safe.”
Here are some of the experiences Eliza has documented so far as part of the 16 Days campaign.
‘I could feel him watching me in lectures’
“He was a course mate. No one spoke to him for the first term. I felt bad for him so we struck up a conversation outside a lecture hall one day. He asked to go for a coffee and I said sure, making friends never did anyone any harm. It escalated from there. I started getting cards and presents left outside my building with my name on it. I told him to stop, and he took that to mean ‘More please’. I got lewd messages in the middle of the night, then it became graphic messages of what he wanted to do to me while we were both sitting in the same lecture.
“My course mates had to walk me home after every lecture or tutorial when I realised he was following me. When I got off my part-time job at night, I’d run the five minute walk home because I was afraid he’d be waiting for me. He photoshopped screenshots of texts that were supposedly from me and sent them to my then-boyfriend. He showed it to anyone who would believe him, and I started hearing whispers about how I’d led him on and now that I wasn’t interested I was trying to pin the blame on him. I went to my faculty dean and she promised to speak to him. She also told me that I could make a formal complaint but if I did, to remember that it would have such a detrimental impact on his future. She told me that with a complaint of this magnitude, I’d be ruining his chances of ever finding a good job.
“I felt disgusted, yet so scared. I told her I’d drop the complaint because I couldn’t go through living with my fear of being harassed and now this added fear of ruining someone else’s life. Whenever we had to take the same lectures, I felt his eyes watching me. I couldn’t concentrate on my lectures and I was constantly afraid even though he stopped the messages. I applied for extenuating circumstances due to the immense stress I was under and was told because I’d dropped the complaint, that it couldn’t be considered. I still have all the photos, screenshots and proof in case I ever get asked to explain why I didn’t do well in my first year. It’s in a folder on my laptop titled ‘Don’t open unless you must’. Four years on, I’m still afraid that I’ll walk into a client meeting and see him there. At least I could feel good about the knowledge that I didn’t ruin his future. Right?”
‘It really freaked me out to think what he had done with those photos’
“Public sexual harassment is embarrassing and can make you feel like you just want to disappear right there and then. In my first year of university; I was young, naïve and vulnerable. I was at a sports social event in town, and there was a male, who a couple of months previously, had tried to have sex with me and I refused. He was at least five years older than me and what happened wasn’t a good experience at all.
“Despite him being there, I wanted to still enjoy myself as much as possible. During the night, I noticed him just staring at me and trying to get close whilst I tried to avoid him. At one point during the night, I was sat with a couple of friends and he came over and started to take pictures and videos of me, moving the camera around to wherever I was. I felt like I was unable to say anything to him in fear of retaliation or being seen as crazy if he denied it, so I just sat there trying to ignore him. It really freaked me out to think about what he has done with the photos. Just him having them on his phone after the bad experience and without my consent.
“About six months later, he would still be trying to talk to me and even putting his arms around me. I just froze because I didn’t know how badly he could react if I was to shoved him off. I learned that he was taking photos without consent of another girl with who he was intimate with at one point. It makes me angry that he thinks he can do what he wants with another human being in such an uncomfortable way. I was relieved to find out that the other girl asked him to delete the photos, but I still wonder about the ones of me.”
‘He put his hands down my trousers’
“During Freshers’ Week, pre-Covid-19, we had a pub crawl around some of the clubs in central London. In the last club I was just dancing, I was tipsy but not really drunk. This guy who I had met the previous day at enrolment started grinding on me and stuck his hand down the front of my trousers from behind. I managed to get his hand away but he was really grabbing me and I was so confused about what to do especially as I had a couple of friends who were just watching a laughing, not realising how uncomfortable I was. The university counsellor made me feel bad for even bringing it up in a session and told me to just get over it.”
‘Almost every week he’d come up to me and try to touch me’
“In my first year of uni, I would always go to the weekly jazz night at the local student bar. One night, I noticed a guy staring at me from across the room. After a while, he came up to me and told me that I was beautiful – that he had seen me there before, and always looked at me from across the bar. I didn’t think much of this at first – he seemed pretty harmless and it was even kind of flattering.
“However, as the weeks went on this gradually escalated, making me feel increasingly uncomfortable. Almost every week he would come up to me, profusely compliment me, try to touch me, follow me about, or just stare at me from the other side of the room. Once, I went to the bathroom alone – and when I came out, he was waiting for me outside, having followed me there. He cornered me and tried to kiss me.
“On another occasion, after he had come up to me at the bar, I went out into the smoking area with a friend in the hopes of avoiding him. He followed us outside, however, and proceeded to touch my hair, then grabbed my hand and started caressing it. I’m an extremely anxious person and really didn’t know how to handle the situation. I didn’t want to directly confront him, so just tried to make it clear that I wasn’t interested, but he didn’t stop, even after I lied and told him that I was already in a relationship with someone. One night, I felt so uncomfortable that I just left the bar early by myself. Every time I went back I felt on edge, as though I had to be constantly on the lookout in case he was there.”
These are just four of 16 accounts. For the rest, follow @CheerUpLuv on Instagram. If you have been affected by something similar to these experiences, Eliza says: “Start by writing it down. Writing it down is the first step in coming to share your experience. I would then speak to your close friends, or a family member, and try to surround yourself with people who you trust and feel safe with. There are also many organisations which can offer support, like Right of Women, Refuge, Solace, Women’s Aid, the list goes on, but I would also recommend reaching out to communities that might feel closer to home, such as online groups, communities for activism, feminist societies, Instagram collectives in your area.
“There are also many actions you can take, both big and small. Whether that’s organising a talk, a protest, starting a Facebook group, taking legal action, writing to your MP, having a frank conversation with your friends. There is so much out there, and so many supportive communities that you can get involved in, who will make you feel seen, heard and believed.”