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Varsity survey reveals silence around sexual assault

Cambridge, U.K. – 05/11/2010 – as published in Varsity

Sexual assault and rape continue to occur at striking rates amongst University of Cambridge students, an exclusive Varsity survey has revealed.

According to the survey, which was conducted online over a two-week period, 16 per cent of respondents admitted to being victims of sexual assault and/or rape.

The figure seems to be in line with national statistics relating to sexual assault amongst university and college students. A recent survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) showed that 14 per cent of female students were sexually assaulted during their time at university or college.

The survey responses paint a remarkable picture of student attitudes and experiences regarding sexual assault. Most notably, Varsity found that sexual assault among students continues to remain vastly under-reported: only 1 in 6 respondents who admitted to being assaulted reported the incident to authorities.

For the overwhelming majority who did not report the incident, the reasons were numerous: nearly 27 per cent said they did not report it because they “didn’t think it was a serious matter at the time.” Another 11 per cent said that they did not press charges because they “felt acquainted with the perpetrator”.

CUSU’s Women’s Officer, Sarah Peters-Harrison, was not surprised by this trend. She cited embarrassment and lack of education as the most likely causes for limited reporting of sexual assault, both in the University and more generally.

She added, “It also throws into question those anecdotal stories of how students are discouraged from reporting incidents as it may be damaging to the perpetrators’ academic record as well as their own.”

One anonymous survey-taker made the following comments: “The response from my college regarding the issue of sexual assault of a student was not good enough – the victim was told to feel sorry for the attacker by her Tutor who said that the attacker was feeling picked on.”

The student continued, “This led to another student, who was raped in College, refusing to tell anyone about the incident, because she did not want them to think she was making a big fuss, and thought they would not believe her or respond appropriately.”

Colleges, however, are eager to stress that resources are in place for students who may experience assault. Senior Tutor of St Edmund’s, Dr Helen Mason, speaking on behalf of her College, told Varsity that, “We have a very strong tutorial support system at St Ed’s and I would expect any student to turn to us if they have had unwanted attention.

“Depending on the circumstances, I would also anticipate that they would report the incident to the police,” Dr Mason said.

She added, “I am not aware of any serious incidents happening at St Ed’s during the time I have been Senior Tutor.” Dr Mason also pointed out that they do “have several resident Fellows on site and additional security during bops.” She concluded, however, that “in general behaviour has been good”.

Being acquainted with the perpetrator was another recurring fact among many responses. Over two thirds of those who said that they had experienced sexual assault admitted that they knew the perpetrator. Of these, nearly a third said that they knew the perpetrator “well”.

These results are in line with that of the NUS report, ‘Hidden Marks’, published earlier this year following the results of a survey, which gathered over 2,000 responses from female students in the UK. That report found 81% of victims of serious sexual assault knew their attacker.

The report distinguished this figure from the 53% of less serious sexual assault victims who knew the person involved.

According to its legal definition, sexual assault constitutes any intentional sexual touching of a person against his or her will. This could include anything from being kissed or groped in a club against your will, to attempted sexual intercourse (oral, anal or vaginal) to assault by penetration and, of course, rape.

The fact that sexual assault falls into different categories of varying degrees of gravity makes it even more difficult for people to determine whether they have been a victim of sexual assault.

The survey showed that many people continue to be unsure of what exactly constitutes sexual assault. Although 93% of survey takers judged non-consensual sex within a relationship or marriage to be rape, nearly 42% were not sure or did not know the specifics of what constituted sexual assault.

Peters-Harrison was concerned at the ignorance among students on this matter. She commented that: “Much is said at school and during Freshers’ Week about STDs but there is a desperate need for greater sexual awareness, including on matters of consent and emotional harm.”

She went on to explain that “a lack of training in these matters for key members of pastoral systems, such as tutors, mean students can remain unsure and afraid.”

Issues of consent are, however, complex. A controversial case in 2007 involving capacity to give consent highlighted the difficulties in the legalities of sexual assault when drugs and alcohol are involved.

The case commented that while the statement “drunken consent is still consent” is broadly true, this is not entirely so. Section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which defines consent, provides that “a person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”

The traveller on the road to alcoholic oblivion, judges say, may reach the point where that “freedom and capacity” is lost.

They added that, “As a matter of practical reality, capacity to consent may evaporate well before a complainant becomes unconscious.”

This is all the more relevant in light of the fact that of the 16% of survey takers who admitted to being victims of sexual assault, 54% had been drinking or taking drugs before the incident.

Nearly 12% of these victims had also been “engaged in sexual actions with the perpetrator” before the assault, bringing to light issues of trust and social pressures that survey takers saw as an important issue.

The survey question about what should be done to prevent male-on-female rape and/or sexual assault elicited a broad range of responses. Nearly 30% of people suggested the best way to prevent rape was to offer free night-time transport for women, while 14% agreed that providing women with rape alarms was important. On the other hand, 34% said “educating men” was the answer.

The latter certainly seems to be the key since the Varsity survey suggests 71% of sexual assault victims knew their offender. This evidence implies that physical self-protection alone is not an effective focus for preventing rape.

One student, in response to the survey, commented, “All the advice given to women seems to be ‘watch your drinks, don’t walk alone.’ None of these protect you when your attacker is your friend.”

While the Varsity survey has revealed useful insights about student attitudes towards sexual assault, some have criticised the validity of the data collected. One student who took the survey commented, “I believe that this survey is more sensationalist than useful.”

The Varsity survey was distributed electronically to all University students via the Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) weekly bulletin.

The survey was also made available via the Varsity website and Facebook page. Over 500 responses were collected.

It is fair to say, however, that the strong self-selecting nature of the survey has opened up the possibility of results being slightly skewed. However, the fact that the percentage of students who admitted to being victims of sexual assault in theVarsity survey is in line with national statistics is striking.

One economist at Trinity said, “All surveys of this kind are open to biases. The important thing is that the issues surrounding sexual assault among students in Cambridge are being raised.”

Additional reporting contributed by Elizabeth Bateman and Yuming Mei (Statistics Consultant)