Cambridge just isn’t safe for women

ELEANOR COSTELLO talks about her experience of sexual assault whilst out at night in Cambridge.

| UPDATED a CCTV consent fighting back horrible of police sexual assault thorny issues unresponsive

Some people are going to find this article controversial, because it’s about sexual assault. But what’s so shocking about sexual assault? It happens all the time.

In 2010, a NUS survey found that 68% of respondents said that they had been sexually assaulted verbally or physically when they were a student. I don’t know about you, but I found that pretty surprising. Only 68%? How have the other 32% been so lucky?

A large proportion of nights I go clubbing I get felt up in the queue, at the bar, or on the dancefloor. A few days ago a group of four men pulled me from my friends, encircled me, and physically barred me from leaving until one of my friends shoved them aside. Last week one guy was so aggressively persistant in getting my number that I had to enlist the help of a randomer who pretended to be my boyfriend (thank you, kind randomer, for uplifting my faith in men and humanity). Sometimes it’s nice to get attention, but I just don’t understand where the appeal is in persistently harassing someone who is clearly mouthing “save me!” at everyone around them.

Clubbing isn’t always as fun as it looks in photos

It’s relatively easy when you’re in a club, with your friends and what seems like half of Cambridge, to laugh off a persistent admirer, or an unwelcome wandering hand, and you are after all in a dark room with a lot of tightly packed drunk and horny youths, so although it’s obviously lamentable, it’s not particularly surprising.

But it’s not just confined to clubs.

Recently, I was staggering home (completely pissed, obviously) with a friend. We stopped off at a chippie for a late-night snack, and I ordered a hot dog. Now, once you’ve ordered a hot dog, you have to make a few jokes about liking your sausages, right? So I made the obligatory innuendo to the man behind the counter. But to my surprise, I got more than ketchup with my hot dog.

The man walked out from behind the counter and started snogging me.

Now bear in mind that I am 18. This man looked to be over twice my age and was completely sober, whilst I was so drunk that almost all of the night is obliterated from my memory. The next day I was absolutely horrified to recall what I had happened. After several days of deliberating, I went to the police – after all, he only stopped because my friend intervened. What if he tried this with other women, who didn’t have someone there to protect them?

But the police came back within hours to say that they’d reviewed CCTV footage and found that the kiss that I had thought went on for about five seconds went on for more like a minute. And more than that, they said it looked like I was kissing back. They weren’t pressing charges.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to think. I can’t really remember much about that night. Why would I kiss him back? What was wrong with me? Could I really give consent in such a state? Surely I wouldn’t kiss literally anyone? I really fancied the guy I was with, and I spent all night with him, but I didn’t kiss him because I felt too nervous. Could I literally be kissed by a complete stranger on the street and I would just stand there and take it?

I thought long and hard about what had happened. And an unpleasant memory came to mind. When I was about fourteen, I was seriously sexually assaulted at school. Afterwards I went to the loos and took off my shirt and washed myself, clawing at my skin, to overpower the sensation of their dirty hands crawling over my body. I didn’t tell anyone until the next day, when my teachers could not have made it clearer that they did not believe me.

‘So you just stood there. You didn’t fight back, you didn’t do anything. You just let it happen?’ they asked incredulously. ‘Yes,’ I replied, burning with shame. But I thought, ‘What do you expect, me to become Jackie fucking Chan?!’ What was I supposed to do? I froze. Obviously it’s not the ideal reaction to sexual assault, but surely it doesn’t entirely negate what happened?

I felt like this incident was happening all over again. And again, there was nothing I could do about it, and those in authority who were supposed to protect me did nothing.

I have always been open and honest with strangers. I’ve always just kind of assumed that they would be, well, normal. I don’t want to have to feel like I constantly have to be on guard, and have a can of deodorant hidden in my bag to take out attackers.

For making nice smells, not the only line of defence

I was with a chaperone, in a take-away place I’d been to many times before, and I still wasn’t safe. Worse than that, the guy is still working there, because the owners and the police have decided that what he did was completely acceptable.

Surely it’s not fair to turn around and say, ‘You were drunk, you didn’t fight back, so you can’t have been sexually assaulted’. I mean, where do we draw the line? What if someone had sex with me, and I still wasn’t reacting violently? Just because I don’t punch him in the face, does that mean that I’ve given consent? What if I’m just so paralysed with shock and terror?

The whole experience has made me think that it really isn’t worth the bother and stress of to actually report being assaulted. But then I did some research, and found that it is estimated that about 60% of sexual assaults aren’t reported to the police, and 97% of rapists will never be prosecuted.

So every damn time that someone makes me feel scared because of their overly-forceful attentions, I’m going to report them to the police. I don’t care how many hours it takes, or how many times I cry when I hear that once again no one cares. And you shouldn’t either. Seriously, don’t just not think about it, or pretend that it wasn’t ‘that bad’. If we don’t report sexual assault, it’s just going to keep on happening.