Revealed: the shocking truth about Scotland's rape culture on campus

Annie McLaughlin is the winner of the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women bursary. She will be writing articles for our media partner, the Sunday Herald, around the topics of violence against women and gender equality. Find out more about Annie here.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald on Sunday 4th December – read it here

IT should have been a typical get together in student halls at her Scottish university. Katy, then 19, planned to spend the evening socialising with a group of friends she had got to know over the course of the semester.

The next morning, however, instead of her first lecture of the day, Katy found herself facing the immediate aftermath of sexual assault. The man who had attacked her was a fellow student, part of the group she had spent the previous evening with.

She recalls trying to explain to her then-boyfriend what had happened to her. “After I told him, he basically treated it as if I had cheated on him,” she says. “He forced me to go to the police, mainly to prove that I hadn’t.”

After a police investigation lasting less than two weeks, Katy was told that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the man who had assaulted her. By that time, the news that she had reported him had spread among both the students and wardens in her accommodation and she became ostracised by her peers, who sided with her attacker.

“There didn’t seem to be any confidentiality. Everyone knew about it, including the people working in the halls and they all believed him [when he denied the assault],” she says.

This week, activists around the world united to demand action on violence against girls and women in schools, colleges and universities, as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. Now in its 25th year, the initiative runs annually from 25 November to 10 December and has served as an organising strategy for campaigners to call for the elimination of all forms of violence against women.

This year’s campaign theme, From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All, aims to highlight how violence against women and girls in school and universities damages their ability to learn and fosters discrimination and inequality.

In the West, the issue has been brought to the fore through media coverage of a number of high-profile cases of rape and sexual assault on US university campuses. Acclaimed 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground investigated how rife the problem is and accused university administrations of failing to deal with it adequately.

But here in the UK, universities are also under increasing pressure to take direct action to prevent campus sexual assault and overhaul how they support students who have been attacked and harassed.

Katy says that when she sought support from her university counselling service after her attack, the experience only left her more isolated.

“The counsellor I saw had also been counselling my boyfriend, who by that time had become my ex, for an unrelated issue. [They] told me that I didn’t look that upset or that I needed counselling and that my ex-boyfriend’s problems were more serious than mine.”

Cut off from her friends and with no support from her institution, Katy withdrew from her course. Six years later, she is now completing her degree at the University of the West of Scotland and is receiving support from their counselling team, who she describes as “excellent, really good”.

However, she says it is vital that universities take responsibility for the prevention of gender-based violence through education and training programmes which challenge sexist attitudes and counteract myths surrounding sexual assault and harassment.

“I’ve even heard some male students say that there should be guidelines on what women should wear to avoid sexual assault, which is nothing more than victim blaming.

"We need as much education as possible for students on gender-based violence and it needs to be compulsory. If we include everyone, if we engage as many people as possible and keep talking, then attitudes will be changed.”

According to the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Hidden Marks report, an estimated 68 per cent of female students have been subject to sexual harassment within UK universities, with one in seven experiencing serious sexual or physical assault, including rape.

Little wonder then there is increasing alarm about gender-based violence on UK campuses and how universities are dealing with it, which has led to renewed calls for action.

Last month, a report published by a Universities UK taskforce urged institutions to create a zero-tolerance culture with regard to violence against women. It came after further NUS research revealed a “startling lack of provision, training, and support across institutions and students’ unions” with regard to measures to deal with sexual violence and harassment.

In Scotland, however, ground-breaking research is already leading the way. The Equally Safe in Higher Education (ESHE) project, based at the University of Strathclyde and funded by the Scottish Government, is developing a toolkit for all Scottish universities to help them identify, prevent and eliminate sexual assault, harassment, stalking and domestic violence. It will also investigate the extent of sexual violence within Scottish higher-education institutions.

Anni Donaldson, Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Project Lead for ESHE, recognises that sexual violence is not unique to universities. However, with one-in-three rapes in Scotland carried out by men between the ages of 17-25, she points to the need to deal with the problem within student life.

“For many young people coming to university, it’s their first time away from home. They are experiencing new situations, new friendships, new relationships and we have to consider what their particular vulnerabilities might be as well as the potential opportunities for perpetrators in that environment.”

Donaldson also highlights the need for increased support for student victims of assault and harassment from university staff. In cases such as these, she says, students could be less likely to report for fear of reprisals which may harm their academic careers.

A Universities UK’s report into sexual violence and harassment in was criticised in some quarters for failing to address staff-student harassment adequately. A newspaper report in early October referred to accounts shared by over 100 women who had been subject to abuse and harassment. The majority involved senior male academics abusing female PhD students whose research they supervised.

Comprehensive data on the scale of sexual assault and violence against women at UK universities, and particularly in Scotland, is still lacking. As part of its research, the ESHE project will conduct a student survey which aims to gather more robust evidence on the frequency and type of incidents.

At the same time, a number of student-led campaigns are also taking a lead on challenging attitudes to sexual assault and harassment and demanding action from institutions.

At the University of Glasgow, students launched the Let’s Talk campaign to campaign for the eradication of sexual violence at the university. The group is now working with university management to build a better system for reporting rape, educate students on 'bystander intervention', and help survivors.

Erin Ross, Vice President of Student Support at the University’s Students’ Representative Council says that, while universities, students and society in general still have a long way to go before sexism and misogyny are eliminated “this conversation couldn’t have happened 15 or even 10 years ago”.

In 2013 allegations of sexist heckling of two female speakers at Glasgow University Union's annual Ancients Debating Championship made national news, with some students claiming that it was representative of an ingrained tradition of sexism at the union.

The same year, members of Stirling University’s student hockey team were suspended from the sport after they were filmed chanting sexist and offensive songs on a public bus. The following year, the University of Edinburgh investigated a chapter of an American student fraternity at the university whose members had been accused of making rape jokes and threats at campus meetings.

Astrid Smallenbroek is president of the student-led Gender Equality Movement at the University of Stirling. She says that it’s vital that students get the message that sexual harassment, assault and sexist ‘banter’ is not a normal part of university life.

“People might say that it’s common, or that it ‘happens to everyone’ at university. That doesn’t mean that it’s normal or acceptable. We need education that tells students that it’s not okay and guidance on what to do if it happens to you or if someone reports it to you.”

Dr Kallia Manoussaki, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of Scotland, launched the Standing Safe campaign in response to feedback from students who were keen to take action to prevent sexual violence.

Manoussaki says that part of the challenge for campaigns is to change ingrained attitudes about gender, sexism and what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse. “It will take time,” she says, “but through repetition of the right messages and by empowering students to be able to stand up and call out [sexism] where they see it, we will chip away at these attitudes and make them no longer acceptable.”

Donaldson agrees that offering young people the chance to talk openly about their attitudes and experiences, without judgement, is vital in creating a zero tolerance culture.

“Young people get a lot of mixed messages. With one click anyone, even young children, can access porn now. However, it’s been proven that if you create safe spaces for young people to talk about these issues, then you can change attitudes.”

Jennifer was in the third year of her undergraduate degree when she made the decision to leave a relationship during which she had been repeatedly assaulted by her partner, a male student at another university. Like Katy, she also turned to her institution for help in dealing with the aftermath of her abuse and the effects on her studies of continued stalking and harassment from her ex-partner. However, she found that the lack of a co-ordinated response from her institution and absence of specific procedures for supporting student victims contributed to her distress.

She was studying a joint degree and, as there was no centralised process within her university for making disclosures about her experience, she had to go to each academic department individually to explain what had happened to her and to ask for support and extensions on her coursework. The responses she received differed greatly.

“There was a very big split, in terms of the response,” she says. “One department was very helpful - they gave me extensions [on my work] and put me in touch with some external support agencies. The other department said that they couldn’t do anything unless I provided proof to them that what I was telling them had really happened.”

Her personal tutor put her in contact with Scottish Women’s Aid, who offered to provide a letter to her academic department to support her request for extensions on her coursework. The department accepted this, but Jennifer says that this meant that she had to then reveal the specific details of her abuse, which she found extremely distressing.

She believes that cases like hers are much more common than her university realises, and she suspects that they often go unrecorded. A series of freedom of information requests to Scottish universities at the beginning of the year, asking how many of their students had reported being sexually assaulted or raped from 2012-2015, revealed that of eight universities which gave responses, the totals recorded ranged from none to 28 over the three-year period.

“Every time I talk about my own experience in a group, there will be at least one other person who will say that something [similar] has happened to them,” says Jennifer. “A lot of them say that they don’t feel safe as they don’t believe the university will do much [if they report it]. There should be someone [on campus] who is specialised in dealing with these issues. It’s a big enough problem. Universities have to acknowledge that this is happening.”

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