Shouldn’t we ask why Durham has the highest number of sexual assaults?

A college support system, or a cocky society who think it’s acceptable

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While the collegiate system at Durham helps enormously with welfare, it also encourages an intense drinking culture through emphasis on sport teams and college rivalry. Sexual assaults on campus are a nationwide issue – there have been 36 recorded incidents in the last two years, making Durham top alongside Oxford.

Durham boasts both university and college teams with an emphasis on socials rather than on the competitive sport. An all-male society carried out their initiation before Christmas in the school field opposite the library. They stood in a circle, stripped completely naked, while downing drinks and chanting their society’s song. It’s this sort of behaviour and encouragement to drink excessively which appears to grant these boys a confidence to treat women a certain way and blurs the boundaries of consent. 

Addressing the issue of lad culture at Durham, Hatfield second year Jadwiga Slomka said: “Getting with someone almost always leads to the other person thinking you’ll be going home with them. That’s quite a huge assumption to make and it’s uncomfortable.

“Most girls I know are uncomfortable with accepting drinks from strangers in a club because they think that they then owe them something, it’s like a form of currency, and yet we say that society has progressed?”

As part of our investigation – in conjunction with The Sun – The Tab spoke to a female student who was sexually assaulted during her first year at Durham. The assault occurred in college, following an event where an alumni funded and unlimited bar.

“One night when college was full of students drinking themselves into a stupor with the money of a wealthy alumnus, I was paid a visit that changed my year. It wasn’t the way he walked into my room as if he knew it wasn’t locked that chilled me. It wasn’t the rich smell of stella that poured from his mouth as he tried to kiss me.

“It wasn’t his hands, that grasped me through my pyjamas. Yes, all these things were disgusting and repulsive and still make me want to tear something up. But it was the way he very deliberately removed his shoes – at the foot of my bed – before sitting down and trapping me under my duvet that seemed to almost stop my heart.

“I had been watching a comedy show with a friend. When it approached midnight, we were both falling asleep, so she left. Of course, she didn’t lock the door behind her. My laptop was still open on my bed, my phone by my pillow. I was in my pyjamas and drifting off when the door opened.

“I thought it must be my friend, returning for some reason, and sat up. Instead of her, though, two young men cut hazy figures in the darkness. He was a friend, and he had brought a friend.

“I was sexually assaulted. It was not rape. I will forever be thankful that my friend returned that night. She had pocket-called me and heard my surprise as they walked into my room. When she turned the light on, he sat up, and didn’t say another word.

“We walked him to his room – the other figure had left – and put him into bed. And then, back in my room, the shock of the violation hit me and I stayed awake for hours.

“After a week or so, I blocked it from my mind. I continued to live on the same corridor as him, I slept in the same bed that I had been assaulted in. I continued as if nothing had happened. But it had, and four months later when it came out and the university was alerted, then the police, I was forced to come to terms with what had happened.

“My life in Durham became almost unbearable – walking past the police station by day, sleeping in the same bed by night. Friends chose to support him rather than me, and I felt isolated. No one should go through what I did – but students at Durham do, and worse.”

Durham recently became the first university in the UK to appoint a full-time sexual misconduct officer in the form of Clarissa Humphreys, a social worker who specialises in violence against women. When approached for comment she said: “I am a member of the Sexual Violence & Misconduct Operations Group and we continue to implement recommendations from the Sexual Violence Task Force. Key projects include: finalising the Sexual Violence & Misconduct Policy and Procedure and developing core training modules for students and staff to prevent and respond to sexual violence and misconduct. 

“The University is taking an institution-wide approach meaning that all members of the University community are responsible for ensuring sexual violence and misconduct are not tolerated as part of our community. Sexual violence is a broad societal issue requiring cultural change and training is a key component to tackling the issue and changing culture.”

However, a potential reason behind more cases of assault being recorded in Durham is a result of the amount of support on offer in the college community. From the first year students are given a college proctor who looks after a flat, a college mentor who is assigned five students, access to college welfare and then the college support officer. 

With three highly publicised court cases in the last year alone, it’s a dubious claim The Times makes that there is a conspiracy of silence over rape in Durham. The spate of sexual assaults that have occurred are by no means excusable by police involvement but equally, they are not all “hushed up to protect the alleged attacker’s reputation.” We remain part of a college for the duration of our degree and feel more comfortable talking to members of staff we are familiar with, something which isn’t as accessible in other universities.

Huge socials of more than thirty guys tour college bars, are egged on by each other and in an effort to impress older boys, guys will act out. Girls are regularly hounded up onto tables by large groups of boys to dance and made to feel like poor sports if they refuse.

There are often rules about how guys can act around girls too. There might be bans on guys on a social speaking to girls before a certain time, and they’ll be given drinking penalties or berated if they do speak to girls. It leads to a scenario where girls are only see as potential love interests, especially when guys are drunk.

It would be inaccurate to say that this directly leads to sexual assault, but it definitely creates an atmosphere where guys are guys and girls are targets.