You Shouldn’t Have To Worry About Sexual Assault During Fresher’s Week

With students arriving en masse for university this week, columnist Lucy Vine says we need urgent measures to tackle harassment

Freshers week

by Grazia |

I remember my Freshers’ Week (YES A MILLION YEARS AGO THANK YOU) as absolutely terrifying and absolutely thrilling. I was just 18, away from my family for the first time, living in a freshly painted halls of residence, with only 18,000 packets of Pasta ‘N’ Sauce for company. I was excited about meeting/sleeping with new people, cheap alcohol, and an adult life filled with intellectual pursuits – by which I mean not having to argue with my siblings about the TV remote anymore. The idea of having to worry about being sexually assaulted or harassed would’ve never crossed my mind.

That feels like a privilege no longer afforded to women starting their university courses this week. A new study by the National Union of Students suggests one in five students will experience some form of sexual harassment during their first week of term. More than half of female students will receive unwanted sexual attention on a night out and about a third will experience sexual abuse during their three years of learning.

Welcome, ladies, to adulthood, where you will rack up thousands in debt and almost certainly be sexually harassed on campus.

It’s such a hot mess issue right now, and the catalogue of fuck ups surrounding the way we handle it feels like a bottomless pit of depressing stories. Just last week we heard another one; a 21-year-old student, Melissa Maher taking her former college to court after she reported a rape. The college ‘actively discouraged’ her from filing a formal report and then moved her into the building next door to him. It bleeds down into schools too, with recent stats saying a fifth of girls are sexually assaulted in and around their classrooms. An essay on Slate.com last week described how a schoolgirl was suspended after she told a teacher she was forced to perform oral sex on a male classmate. We are getting this wrong.

Of course there are some universities who are trying to fix it, and my spirit animal, Emma Watson praised efforts last week. She thanked, ‘men from all over the world [who] have decided to make gender equality a priority in their lives and in their universities.’ She was speaking in New York at the 71st Annual United Nations General Assembly to mark UN Women releasing its first HeForShe Impact 10X10X10 University Parity Report. That is a mouthful, but I wanted to say it in full – instead of using the Rod Liddle shorthand; ‘Whining, leftie, PC crap.” (sigh) (why would sexual violence be a left wing issue?!)

Watson implored universities to prioritise the safety of women, and talked about her own experience at Brown, which she says, ‘became my home, my community. It shaped who I am.’ Because that’s the big thing, isn’t it? University is where we figure out who we are, who we want to be, what we want to do with the rest of our lives, and maybe make some friends who will help us figure all that out. What happens if we get there and find out that life as a woman is about being harassed over and over, without consequence, and that – as Emma says – ‘sexual violence isn't actually a form of violence’.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, says, ‘The failure to treat campus assault as seriously as sexual violence in other settings (and frankly, it’s not often taken seriously in other places either) is due to the culture of ‘boys will be boys’ that prevails in places where there are large groups of men – especially young men. This culture is dangerous as it fosters the sense of entitlement that men believe they have over women’s space, time, and bodies. Violence against women and girls is rooted in misogyny; education is vital in order to unpick these attitudes and challenge our victim-blaming culture. So it is heartening to see Emma Watson’s report, and the fact that it is a global movement with universities from all over the world taking part. The message is clear: violence against women is a global issue and universities are in a unique position to challenge and prevent it.’

Things need to change. Right now, please. We can’t keep waving young women off to university with a shrug and an awkward, ‘Sorry you’ll probably get assaulted!’ For many of us, this is the start of life as a grown up, our first time away from home. We should be making doubly sure that this first adventure is the very safest – that campuses are a refuge. We need to make sure that a woman’s first lesson at university isn’t about sexual violence.

SEE MORE: Emma Watson delivers powerful speech on campus sexual assault

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