At the bi-annual Student Council meeting on 26 November 2020, Shamar Gunning (President of iFem Soc here at the University of Bristol and MA Law student) and Anna Vause (Chair of the Women’s Network and Third Year History undergraduate) proposed a motion to improve the culture of consent at the University.
They both claim that in their roles as women in leadership positions they have been approached multiple times by female students who have experienced sexual assault and not known where to turn. This needs to change, and Gunning and Vause are suggesting concrete steps that the University can adopt to combat the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in student culture.
The prevalence of sexual harassment incidences in student life is by no means unique to the University of Bristol. Revolt is a non-profit set up by recent UK graduates that aims to raise awareness of the extent to which sexual assault takes place on University campuses around the UK with an end to using this awareness to address rape culture and all of its underlying causes and symptoms. Revolt conducted nation-wide research in 2018 in partnership with The Student Room which uncovered harrowing statistics on the extent to which sexual assault permeates UK University student experiences.
Of 4,500 students who took part in Revolt’s survey across 150 institutions of higher education, 62 percent reported experiencing sexual violence.
When only female respondents are considered, this number rises yet further to 70 percent.
There is clear statistical evidence to indicate that university students across the UK are at greater risk of sexual violence than the average citizen. Rape Crisis England & Wales calculated that in 2017 (the most recent year for which the Office for National Statistics has released data on sexual offences) around 4 percent of people in England and Wales had experienced some form of sexual assault in the past year. Revolt’s findings report that 8 percent of female students have been raped while at University. While there may well be more systemic under-reporting of rape in the general population than among University students, the sheer discrepancy between these numbers firmly indicates that rape (and, by extrapolation sexual harassment) is more endemic in Universities than in wider British society.
One plausible explanation for this is that students at University almost always inhabit shared student spaces. Revolt’s research indicates that the three most common locations of sexual harassment or assault are in residential halls (at 28 percent of incidences), at University social events (24 percent of incidences) and in University social spaces (23 percent of occurrences). The frequency and constancy with which University students inhabit these populated student spaces puts everyone more at risk. More needs to be done to educate, inform and protect students around the country of the reality of sexual assault – as well as the steps that can be taken to receive help in the situation that assault does occur.
So, what are Shamar and Anna looking to do here at the University of Bristol to improve the culture of consent?
The passing of their motion at the Student Council meeting was the first success. This motion has put in place steps for the SU to launch a compulsory consent training programme for Presidents of all Clubs and Societies when they begin their role. The motion also calls on the SU to create a single, coherent document advising all Presidents of societies – as well as the wider student community – of the steps and procedures available to them in the case of someone reporting a wellbeing concern regarding consent.
Her Campus spoke to Anna Vause about the motion’s success.
‘When Shamar and I decided to pass the new consent motion at the university, I think many people were genuinely surprised to hear how widespread and insidious the issue is.
‘The idea of the motion is to train presidents, captains and any other nominated members of a committee about consent, what consent is, and how it must be explicitly given. We exist in a culture where the survivor is still questioned, still blamed, still deemed responsible, and this consent training will seeks to amend this in our, albeit small, capacity.
‘I am often asked what advice I would give to women and girls walking home at night to stay safe from sexual assault, or public sexual harassment. The classic advice given is 'get a taxi', or 'walk home with a friend', or 'text a friend when you're home’. However, the real crux of this question is why, in 2020, it is still deemed a woman's responsibility to keep safe from sexual assault. Why can't the perpetrators of these violent crimes be properly apprehended? Why is it that we have created a culture where women cannot walk home at night without fearing for their safety? That is the real issue here.’
Photograph of Anna and Shamar
And what can students expect to see changing at the University?
We also spoke to Shamar Gunning about the next steps for making a difference here in Bristol.
‘Additionally through our motion Anna and I hope to produce a singular and accessible document that explicitly defines consent. Often times the confusion around what consent is can be refuted with a simple and clear conversation or, as we will produce, one document. By creating this we hope that students and representatives will be able to demystify consent and simultaneously better place us all to protect ourselves in the future.
‘We wanted to stress that the society representatives, although useful in combatting this problem, are not the only group who should be focusing on this issue. The culture and myths around consent are upheld and experienced by all of us in our daily lives. This includes conversations in the corridors of halls and changing rooms. Unfortunately conversations about consent are not always presented in an open or safe environment that allows for reps with training to combat harmful stereotypes. The aim of our motion is to equip those in leadership roles to begin a widespread change at the University of Bristol in the way consent is spoken about on campus and beyond.
‘Finally, we wanted to stress that Consent is not purely a ‘woman’s issue’. Victims are found in all identities and dynamics and we want to update the conversation to be as inclusive as possible. As I mentioned this document will be evolving and we want it to be updated and amended as new conversations take place regarding consent and its legality. A good example of this is the recent changes to legislation regarding Image Based Sexual Assault (the taking or sharing sexual photos or videos of another person without their consent). As recently as 2020 victims whose images are being shared without consent were being shamed and prevented from protecting their agency. As our society changes to reflect the way sexual assault and harassment continues, we want the SU’s Policy on consent to demonstrate this.’
If you, or anyone you know, would benefit from gaining support or access to more information about consent or sexual wellbeing, see these pages for more information:
University of Bristol 'Report and Support' service: https://reportandsupport.bristol.ac.uk/
Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (SARAS): http://www.sarsas.org.uk/
Love Respect by Women's Aid: https://loverespect.co.uk/
Bristol SU Women's Network Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661250327523100/