‘Reclaim these streets’ is a Cambridge issue, and we need to talk about it

People of marginalised genders don’t always feel safe on the streets of Cambridge, and we need change

CN: // Discussions about sexual misconduct and assault, details of assault, racial violence, queer violence, trauma,  femicide and death

Whilst Sarah Everard’s death sent shockwaves across the country, this murder was tragically no real surprise for many people of marginalised genders. In fact, this horrific incident of violence at the hands of a man employed to protect the public, speaks to a wider issue of violence against people of marginalised genders.

Such violence continues to tarnish our society on both an individual and systemic level, with 97% of women aged 18-24 having experienced sexual harassment in the UK. In fact, 2020 was the worst year on record for violence against Black trans-women in the UK.

Cambridge is no exception, with 165 allegations of rape or sexual assault being reported by students to university authorities between 2016 and April 2019 – and for every reported incident of sexual misconduct, many more are likely to have occurred unreported. Hence in 2018, the university admitted it had a ‘significant problem’ with sexual misconduct. This feels like an issue that is only getting worse. 

Cambridge is the sixth worst university for rates of assault in the UK, with 88% of female students having been assaulted on a night out.  The reality is that nearly all of us have experienced sexual misconduct, or know someone else who has, during our time at Cambridge. This is something we’ve experienced on a personal level. The sad truth stands that most students of marginalised genders arriving at Cambridge will already have faced experiences with men that left them feeling unsafe, and unheard.

Photo credits: Cambridge SU Women’s Campaign via Instagram

For Madeleine, “having been groped in clubs and on public transport, followed whilst walking home, and verbally sexualised by strangers and peers alike, I know how unsafe it can feel to be a woman. I remember my mum asking my older sister if she had an alarm in case anybody approached her when she waited to be collected from dance practice. I remember how scared I was when a man first asked where I lived when travelling home from school.

“I remember how small I felt when various men tried to untie my top in one particularly poor clubbing experience. I remember when I started my first job, my grandma warned me “not to let the men get too fresh”, I wasn’t sure what she had meant at first, but soon realised that she was reminding me to stay alert.

“I remember the Michaelmas car-ride to Cambridge, when my parents asked me what I would do if I ever felt threatened by a man. In discussing safe sex, they weren’t reminding me to use protection, they were reminding me of my vulnerability as a woman.”

Photo credits: Cambridge SU Women’s Campaign via Instagram 

There’s a reason people are choosing to protest in the middle of a pandemic, as the solace found in collective action is motivation enough for people of marginalised genders, who already feel unsafe. In both online vigils, and a walking protest, students from across Cambridge came together, to share their experiences and their pain, making clear that this is an issue that has to change. As the President of Student Minds Cambridge, Anna McKeon said: “Every effort to create a safe environment should be taken, in Cambridge and the UK more broadly.”

Victims need to feel supported

Experiencing sexual misconduct can lead to a range of complex and unsettling emotions, from guilt to embarrassment, to concern for the perpetrator of the misconduct in question. Loud and Clear, a campaign group based at Clare College who are working to support survivors of sexual misconduct and create a culture of zero-tolerance for sexual misconduct in Cambridge, have put together a comprehensive guide on how and where you can find support if needed. 

This is so important, since responding to sexual misconduct can be incredibly difficult and overwhelming. This is something Thea has experienced: “I can relate to being confused as to how to deal with someone touching an intimate part of my body without my consent, especially as this happened in a public setting, and others made a mockery of how uncomfortable I felt. This made me feel like my emotions were invalid and that it was better for me to remain silent and dismiss the incident all together as nobody around me when the incident took place felt like it was an issue.

“To this day, I still don’t know how I feel about what happened to me, whether to ignore it, be angry, be upset, or thankful that I am able block the incident out of my mind, as this [is] not something others can do so easily.”

It is natural to feel a complex range of emotions after any traumatic experience, and more needs to be done to better support survivors in a way which they are most comfortable with. Too many survivors of sexual misconduct have experienced stigmatisation, dismissal and embarrassment, and there can often feel like pressure to respond in a certain way. This needs to change and it is shameful that society’s treatment of victims has forced many into silence, leaving them alone to deal with their trauma. 

Support available in Cambridge

Cambridge has a variety of resources available for survivors, ranging from a specially trained Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor (SAHA), to a private Facebook group for survivors in Cambridge, which you can join by messaging Amy Bottomley here, and no-one who is not in the group will know you’re in the group. The Tab have also put together a comprehensive guide of resources you can use if you have experienced sexual misconduct, which you can access here.

Whilst the advice and support offered by such resources is often very strong, a wider culture of normalising male violence still stands. We must ensure these services are as inclusive and accessible as possible for all survivors of sexual misconduct.  Furthermore, in informal social environments, understanding needs to be shifted to recognise the severity of the current situation. With so many resources available for free from the university, it is up to men to educate themselves with the various tools provided for them. 


Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from the Cambridge SU Women’s Campaign via Facebook

Many students have lost faith in the efficacy of the university and colleges in tackling incidents of assault, or have felt disappointed by inadequacies in both practical and pastoral support. Too often, progress and campaigns have been led by victims, which leaves them shouldering an extra burden they should not have to carry.

As one student clearly explained, material improvements are drastically needed: “Money and resources need to be put into adequate counselling provisions for all students (many marginalised students report a lack of support from services like UCS), more affordable rent, accommodation being available over the breaks and for intermittent students, and more. The underfunding of services like the DRC is symptomatic of the University’s and colleges’ focus on profit and reputation over student welfare.” 

Sexual violence against marginalised groups is often ignored

Why is it that despite the hard work of so many university officers, consent still remains a problem at Cambridge? Why is it that nearly every person reading this article may know of somebody who has experienced sexual misconduct? Why is that the heart-wrenching death of Sarah Everard has received so much more media focus than that of Blessing Olusegun? Of course, being murdered at the hands of a police officer is particularly chilling, but when marginalised groups have been calling out police brutality for such a long time, does this not expose how British society has become desensitised to violence against Black women? 

Photo credits: Loud and Clear Campaign via Instagram

In addressing the unreported violence against trans and queer people, one student said: “The systems and forces that marginalised people face also dictate who is a grieve-able subject and who is given compassion and sympathy, rather than ignored or in some cases blamed for the circumstances that lead to harm against them.”

They added: “Trans people are more likely to experience homelessness, or need to take up unregulated work (much of which is criminalised like sex work) in order to survive, things that put people at higher risk of violence.” We need to be aware of the ways in which people from different marginalised backgrounds are impacted by sexual misconduct and work as a university to resolve this, for example by tackling homelessness within Cambridge. 

Our safety should be guaranteed

As a recent Camfess made clear, the issue is not only about safety but also about dignity. As driven, intelligent, and imaginative as we are at Cambridge, many of us are also angry, frustrated, and scared. 

We come to university to learn, and to grow as people. We don’t come to jam our keys between our knuckles when walking through a dark alley at night, or to avoid exercising in quieter locations, for fear of being approached without our consent. It is so ingrained in the minds and lives of many of us within Cambridge to expect violence, that we experience relief when we are safe. Safety should not be a privilege – it is a right that each and every one of us deserves. 

While there have been social media posts by women, thanking men for making small changes to their behaviour in order to make women feel safe, as well as a wider societal reflection on the treatment of women, it feels like a bittersweet moment. For Thea: “I can’t help but be frustrated that it has a taken a woman dying from the actions of man, for these changes to happen. It makes me fear how many more heart-breaking accounts of violence against women need to happen before there are significant changes to behaviour towards people of marginalised genders. It has taken a high profile case of a victim, for the conversation of women’s safety to be truly reflected upon in wider society and that is a fact which is truly upsetting and disappointing.”

Although major change is needed, the expectation should not be placed upon the victims of assault to deliver this change. Men need to become more active in speaking out and intervening when they see or suspect incidents of assault. Nobody is saying that all men are perpetrators of abuse, but with ‘NotAllMen’ trending above ‘SarahEverard’ on Twitter, a clear problem is shown. If we protect male privilege before we listen to the victims of male violence, then real change will never come.

The silence of many men makes them complicit and contributes to why many feel that the streets are still not their own. 

Feature image credit: Genevieve Holl-Allen and Reclaim These Streets 

Resources available relating to the issues addressed in this article:

Loud and Clear 2020 Guide

Cambridge Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor

WomCam Support Services Resources Bank

Stonewall Services and Community Locator

NHS Help, Rape and Sexual Assault

Related articles recommended by these authors:

• International Women’s Day: 41 Cambridge societies empowering women in 2021

• SU passes motion to standardise misconduct reporting systems across Cambridge Colleges

• A few ways to find support if you or your friend has experienced sexual misconduct in Cambridge