It’s harder than ever to report sexual assault at uni right now

Between lockdown rules and living situations, the pandemic has made reporting even tougher

Last term, a female student at a leading English university reported a boy in her accommodation who was repeatedly touching her and other housemates inappropriately and making them feel uncomfortable. The university took a week but eventually moved him to another accommodation, so the female student felt safer. The problem was, he did the same thing again, just to different female housemates. He was moved out of the second accommodation, then moved a third time because he was making women uncomfortable. The problem was being passed on from one halls to another, and these female flatmates had no way of avoiding the perpetrator because, right now, all students have is their housemates.

This is the reality of experiencing sexual assault and harassment in lockdown at UK unis. Reports of sexual assaults have been higher than ever in recent years, but this year has made it uniquely difficult for students to come forward. This is especially true for first year students, who, back in September, moved in with people they barely knew and had no other (legal) means of meeting or seeing anyone else. There is no split in friendship groups between coursemates and housemates, there is no pub or study space to escape to. When you consider the risk of sexual assault (something universities seem to have neglected to do entirely), it is an absolute recipe for disaster.

Dr Nina Burrowes is the founder of The Consent Collective, a charity that works with university students to educate them about consent and support those who have experienced sexual assault. But it’s hard to support these students when they’re too scared or unsure to come forward in the first place, Dr Burrowes says. “First years are at a new university, they’ve probably hardly seen the campus,” she told The Tab. “They’ve certainly not had a chance to establish a meaningful relationship with their tutors when education is delivered in this way.”

As well as lacking strong relationships with those that can help them if they are sexually assaulted, the relationships and interactions students have with their fellow students can also be shrouded in secrecy. This is because they are often forged while breaking lockdown rules. “We’re certainly hearing people reluctant to report because they were breaking the lockdown,” Dr Burrowes said. “Because you don’t want to get in trouble for breaking the rules. Like you weren’t supposed to be there, or you were with someone you weren’t supposed to be with.”

Dr Nina Burrowes is head of UK charity The Consent Collective

Dr Burrowes says universities need to make it clear, in these “unprecedented times”, that those reporting sexual assaults that occurred while breaking lockdown rules will not be penalised for the rule-breaking. “It’s actually not really any different to being high on drugs when you’re sexually assaulted. Or if it’s a member of staff [who assaulted a student], because they’re not meant to have relationships with members of staff. So the idea of ‘will I get into trouble when I report my sexual assault?’ that’s not new.

“And what with universities handing out fines and penalties left, right and centre, it’s harder for people to see ‘oh, there might be some nuance in this, and actually I won’t get into trouble for breaking the lockdown.’ But there needs to be messaging around all of that.”

Then there’s the proximity of it all. Dr Burrowes says the “lack of opportunity to get away” has made things even tougher for students. “I guess someone might think ‘oh, they could just go home’. But not everybody has an alternative home to go to. For some people, that’s overseas and it’s inaccessible. Or their home isn’t a safe environment for them. Or for other people that family home simply doesn’t exist.”

Dr Burrowes also notes the massive pressure put on those managing student accommodation, who are overstretched and covering more student issues than they were hired to cover. This is a result of those teams becoming the first port of call for students, because everything that happens at university now happens within the confines of student accommodation. “The kind of trouble you would expect to happen in the Students’ Union, for example, is now all being centred in this one place. So these teams must be working so, so hard.”

And the solution to sexual assaults occurring on campus isn’t as simple as just moving a problematic student from one accommodation to another. “That’s just like chucking asbestos over a fence,” Dr Burrowes said, “you’re not supposed to do that.”

Dr Burrowes wishes more universities had prepared for this eventuality and put more time into preventing sexual assaults from happening to begin with, or supporting the student who is assaulted. “Universities tend to prioritise reporting,” she told The Tab, “and their investigation process. But I would like them to prioritise support for the student on the receiving end so that they don’t pay too much of a price in their own mental wellbeing and educational attainment.”

But consent workshops, which light up like dollar signs in universities eyes whenever “preventative” measures against sexual assault are mentioned, aren’t the solution either. In fact, Dr Burrows refers to these as “one hit wonders” and advises universities to move away from them. She argues that sexual assault and harassment prevention should be embedded in the curriculum, into relevant courses or employment classes. It is, as Dr Burrowes says, a university’s “core business as a place of education” to make these changes, and to make them now, even when we know it’s already too late.

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