I spoke to Siobhan Blair, independent sexual violence advocate at the Rape and Sexual Violence Project about campus sexual assault. This was an email interview and is presented in a question-answer format:
*Siobhan did not prefer her photograph be published on the blog
How difficult can it be for students to report a rape or a violent sexual assault to the university?
Although there are usually services available to students who have experienced sexual abuse such as; the student welfare team, it is still a difficult to come forward and say that you have been sexually assaulted whether it is a recent assault or a not recent assault. There may be many obstacles to reporting a sexual assault to your university, such as the perpetrator being a student at the same university, who is studying on the same course, or even a course tutor.
For example, if the perpetrator was a tutor, the victim may feel like they would be seen as a trouble maker, or may believe that they will be looked at unfavourably during assessment marking. There is also the fear of others finding out especially at university, as it is a smaller community within a wider community, especially with the rise in social media and how quickly information can be shared.
In addition some students may also have experimented with the use of alcohol and drugs and may be scared that this could potentially get them in trouble if they were to report sexual abuse to their university. As described above, barriers to reporting are very apparent, and can be hurdle to overcome.
What are some common problems that students might face when reporting the same to the university?
From the clients that I have supported some have felt like they have not been heard, or that they do not feel that the matter has been dealt with adequately. For example imagine reporting an incident to the university, as the perpetrator is a student on your course, and then going back to university and seeing that he or she has not been removed from the class?
Imagine how dis-heartening that would be, or how it could come across as belittling or minimising the victims experience. The victim may also feel they are not believed. Lime Culture are currently working alongside universities to try an improve the way universities manage the disclose of sexual abuse from students.
Of all the cases that you have dealt with, are the victims all female – or have you also done counselling for male victims?
Over 80% of our clients that access support from RSVP are female, and you could assume that this could potentially be proportionate to those impacted by sexual abuse at University. However in saying that, we do support male victims of sexual abuse.
In regards to counselling services being offered to male victims, yes counselling has been offered. However as an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser, the support we provide is not therapeutic. However counselling is a service that is provided within the organisation, as we support people of all genders, ages, sexualities, abilities and race etc.
Who is most vulnerable to sexual assault on campus?
There is potential for anybody to be impacted by sexual abuse.
How do the universities co-operate with the police in such instances – and what can universities do to increase student safety?
I do not have information on whether Universities co-operate with the police, however the assumption would be that universities would engage with the police regarding any police investigation, particularly one involving a student or a member of faculty.
Knowledge is power so raising awareness of sexual abuse is a valuable way of increasing student safety. Highlighting the fact that a large percentage of people who have been sexually assaulted know their attacker. I believe that this may help to enlighten those who believe that ‘true rape’ only happens when someone is dragged off the road and is assaulted by a stranger.
Victim-blaming can be a major hurdle for not just students but for anyone to report a crime at all. How has this affected the students you have spoken to?
Victim blaming also known as Rape Myths can be a be a big hurdle for anyone when reporting to the police. You would be surprised how many of them are prevalent and are deemed socially acceptable such as, ‘…she was asking for it’ , ‘she was drunk and was wearing a short skirt, what did she think would happen?’.
Rape myths such as these serve the purpose of removing the blame from the perpetrator, and transferring it to the victim. This in turn reinforces stigmas such as shame and guilt, and assists in silencing victims of sexual abuse, and consequently may stop victims from reporting to the police, or even seeking sexual health advice.
Have cultural differences ever affected how students may be victimised and played a role in whether they report the assault?
Cultural differences can certainly play a part in whether victims report sexual assault to the police. For example in many Black Minority Ethnic (BME) groups sexual abuse is a very taboo topic.
Rape myths can be very prevalent within these communities and can cause victims of sexual abuse who disclose to be ostracised from their families and communities, stigmatised and labelled by others within the community, and blamed for the assault. The fear of reporting, along with the potential judgement of your community, your family, can definitely act as a deterrent from victims reporting to the police.
Finally, lot of sexual assaults may go unreported. What should parents, friends, and tutors or professors look out for?
This is a very hard question to answer. However I think it is important for support networks such as parents, friends and tutors to be understanding and maintain lines of communication, with anyone impacted by sexually abuse.
This is important because in some cases you are only given one opportunity, by a victim to be there for them, and your first response may be the difference between someone feeling heard and someone carrying guilt and shame.