‘Keep your beliefs away from my body’: Students at the Exeter Sit Down n Shut Up protest

The peaceful protest was against Exeter Guild’s affiliation to ‘Exeter Students for Life’ society


Hundreds of students gathered on the Forum steps on Wednesday afternoon to protest against Exeter Guild’s affiliation to “Exeter Students for Life”, the university’s pro-life society.

The protest was held by Sit Down n Shut Up, a movement started by three University of Exeter students with the aim to tackle sexual assault and harassment on campus, and to encourage women to speak out about their experiences.

Students attending the protest held signs and placards, whilst a number of speakers stood up to share raw, personal experiences.

The protest began just after 1pm, with Sit Down n Shut Up founder Yasmin explaining the purpose of the peaceful protest, sharing the movement’s stance on the matter.

“This society is a symptom of the internalised misogyny we are taught to live with and accept,” they told The Exeter Tab.

As the protest started, the organisers reminded students to check their privilege, be thankful they have access to free and safe abortions, to remember they are privileged to have this education, check their class, their race, and use these to continue to be good, intersectional allies.

“This is not just a women’s movement, but: a non-binary movement, a trans movement, an LGBTQ+ movement – this protest is for everyone whose body belongs to somebody else.”

The Tab Exeter went to the protest and spoke to some of the attendees and organisers to get a deeper insight into why they’d all gathered today.

We initially caught up with the newly-formed, yet-to-be-Guild-approved Pro-Choice society. They responded to the criticism over the “freedom of speech” of the Pro-Life society by arguing that whilst we’re all entitled to our own opinions, it is unfair to force them on everyone else.

“Is there any point in graduating and getting a job if we don’t have rights?” they asked us. “The Guild’s permitting of this group to continue is cultivating a dangerous point of view where men think they have ownership over our bodies.”

Ruby, a speaker at the protest, said: “This is blatant hate and misogyny masked as personal belief – keep your personal beliefs away from my body.”

The organisers of this event, the leaders of the Sit Down n Shut Up movement, said they understood the difficult situation the current Guild leaders are in given the society was set up in 2019, not under their presidency. However, despite the grey area in the law – at Aberdeen, a pro-life society sued the university after it was refused affiliation – they want the Guild to be more fearless and to protect us.

Alice, another founder of the group, said: “They should be doing as much research as we are, they should be doing national lobbying. Ultimately, they’re not doing enough to save the students. The right to freedom of speech comes with responsibility. We are asking that the Guild disaffiliate with this harmful society.”

This sentiment was echoed by second year students Isla and Anouk attending the protest, who felt female safety should not be left up to the feminist societies.

Speakers addressing the crowd asked: “Why does it fall to us to educate others on our rights? Our bodies are not up for discussion. Why should we need to organise a protest to tell them we are in danger? This is giving institutional support to a group who want ownership over us.”

Another asked: “I wonder what it would be like to wake up and have complete control over my own body.”

Third year student Millie argued: “This isn’t about free-speech, it’s about the platform and validating harmful arguments which are spilling onto our mainstream feeds. The university is emboldening their claim to our bodies.”

Anna said: “This right here is freedom of speech – protesting is our right and more importantly it is us projecting how we feel in response to the pro-life society.”

Masters student Holly shared her view that: “These kind of attitudes and societies breed violence against women, and especially those women who have agency over their sexuality. We have to put an end to the belief that a strong, independent woman has to be silenced. Because, ultimately the people who believe this are usually those who end up in positions of power, and it has to stop.”

The Exeter Guild’s official statement on Students For Life Society can be read in full here:

“We are aware of the current discussion around the Students for Life Society and a petition around calling for the disaffiliation of the society. We acknowledge that this is an emotive topic to a lot of our community and we can understand that it is something people have different views on and feel strongly about.

“As your Students’ Guild, we support freedom of speech. We want to foster an environment where our members can participate fully, feel able to question and challenge, express new ideas, discuss controversial and or unpopular opinions within the law- all without fear of intolerance or discrimination. We are committed to the principle that both debate and deliberation should not be suppressed, and we encourage and support our members to engage, within the law, in both a constructive and responsible manner to contest any ideas they oppose openly and vigorously.

“Any Guild member (which is any student at University of Exeter) can apply to start a new society, and although there is a criteria set for this, the above consideration of free speech enables students to establish groups with a diverse range of views. The role of Exeter Guild is to facilitate these groups, including when these views may be challenging or emotive.

“We do however have a set of values and code of conduct that we expect all student groups to follow, and we investigate any alleged breaches of these. Students can make a formal complaint where there is a belief our code of conduct has been breached, which will be thoroughly investigated.

“As this is an important conversation, we understand that it can bring up different emotions for students. That whilst we’re here to facilitate open debate, we’re here to support all students’ wellbeing, if you have been impacted please reach out to:

“If you have been impacted by or been witness to any form of harassment, you can report it through the University’s Speak Out.

“We also encourage these conversations occurring around free speech and the role of your Students’ Guild in facilitating a diverse array of student-led groups and opinions, and we welcome students to attend and contribute to this discussion at our upcoming Guild Council meeting on Wednesday 6 October.

“Further on from our statement yesterday which is above, there are two additional points that we wanted to clarify.

  • The Students for Life Society were affiliated in March 2019 in accordance with our Society Affiliation Process. The Affiliation Process is not about taking a view on whether the Guild agrees or disagrees with a particular student group’s views- it is about discharging the Guild’s responsibilities with regard to the management and administration of student groups.
  • Societies are self-funded through society membership fees, tickets for events and activities, sponsorship, grants and more. Societies are welcome to apply for our society grants, these are awarded based on the assigned criteria.”