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Friday, November 20, 2015

We can’t run away from rape by Nicole Westmarland and Jennifer Doyle

A shocking film about the extent of sexual assault at US colleges has just toured UK universities. 

Photo: Alamy

It is high time we took this problem seriously in Britain, says Nicole Westmarland, professor of criminology and director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse at Durham University. She is also a member of the Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force, and is author of Violence against Women – Criminological Perspectives on Men’s Violences (Routledge, 2015), while US academic Jennifer Doyle, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, warns that a paranoid overreaction poisons campus culture.

We found that sexual assault was pervasive on campuses in the US and that schools were covering up these crimes to protect their reputations.
The prevalence of sexual violence on US university campuses has long been a very high-profile issue – as attested to by the release this year of a film on the issue, called The Hunting Ground. But in recent years – and this year especially – the UK is beginning to give it the attention it deserves.

In January, a poll on behalf of The Daily Telegraph found that 31 per cent of female students had experienced “inappropriate touching or groping”. In May last year, further hand-wringing was prompted by the arrest of the president of the Oxford Union, Benjamin Sullivan, on suspicion of rape (the charges were later dropped), while a Guardian investigation in May this year revealed that seven of the 24 Russell Group universities do not systematically record allegations of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus, and five do not have specific guidelines for students on how to report such allegations.

Finally, in September, the government announced that a task force would be established to tackle violence against women, and “lad culture” more generally, on UK campuses. The task force, led by Universities UK and expected to report in autumn 2016, is not the first to examine the issue. Twenty years ago, a committee led by Graham Zellick, who was then principal of Queen Mary University of London, established the principle that universities should report serious offences, such as rape and sexual assault, to the police, and should not attempt their own investigations. But a review is long overdue, not least because there are concerns that the Zellick principles – devised in the wake of an allegation of rape that King’s College London had attempted to deal with internally – are inconsistent with modern equality and human rights legislation, which appears to impose a duty on universities to investigate breaches.

Some of these alleged inconsistencies were tested in a legal case that made headlines this summer. Elizabeth Ramey, a former graduate student at the University of Oxford, alleges that she was raped by a fellow student in 2011 and feels that her allegation was not taken seriously and investigated fully by the university. Although, like many rape victims, she was reluctant to report the incident to the police, she did so in order to initiate university disciplinary proceedings against her attacker. However, those proceedings stopped when the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take the prosecution further...

Fear and anxiety contaminate our thinking about the possibilities of university life 
The campus security nightmare scenario in the US revolves around two phenomena: the statistical anomaly of “the rampaging shooter” (who could be anyone), and the statistical fact that any female student can become a rape victim.

The genderedness of risk is stark: every male student is a potential threat; every female student, a potential victim. It may feel strange – wrong, even – to juxtapose the extraordinary mass shooting with the omnipresent crisis of campus sexual assault. Fear and anxiety about both, however, contaminate our thinking about the possibilities of university life – and every now and again, these two stories converge.

Take, for example, The Hunting Ground, an earnest documentary about the recent student-led anti-rape movement at US universities. The title wilfully conflates “the shooter scenario” with the ubiquity of sexual assault, and equates rape with murder. And the film itself subordinates the legal activism of women who have been sexually assaulted to the sensationalism of the individual story of those assaults. It is as rigorous in its feminism as an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Additional resources

Campus Sex, Campus Security (Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series)
 "The management of sexuality has been sewn into the campus. Sex has its own administrative unit. It is a bureaucratic progression." -- from Campus Sex, Campus Security.

Source: Times Higher Education