[Content warnings: sexual assault, PTSD]
I was sexually assaulted by a friend of a friend at the beginning of my second year of university. I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including flashbacks, panic attacks, and nightmares. I spent a long time deciding whether to report the perpetrator to the university, and eventually I did so, after several months. I knew that they might not help, but I didn’t expect them to be actively unhelpful. I don’t want to put anybody off reporting – it’s an incredibly brave thing to do and I hope that you get treated better than I did – but there’s a lot of theoretical discussions of what happens when an allegation like this is made to a university, and I wanted to share my experiences. Of course, the following isn’t a representation of every university or even everyone’s experiences at my university, but it is a truthful account of how I was treated by university staff when trying to report a sexual assault.
I’d heard of the Zellick Report; a guidance document written in 1994 for universities on dealing with offences, both criminal and non-criminal. I knew it advised universities not to take internal action in cases which ‘must be investigated by the police’ (Zellick, p.9), including accusations of sexual assault. I hoped that, due to the increasing awareness of the police’s treatment of such cases, some disciplinary action might be taken. I was most concerned that the perpetrator worked as a security guard for the Student Union’s own nightclub, which is why I thought the university might be forced to act. Furthermore, the university’s website states that it ‘aims to adopt a student-centred approach’ with ‘access to high-quality support’. I forced myself to think positively, or I would never have reported at all.
The first person I spoke to in the reporting process was the Full-Time Welfare Officer of the Student’s Union. She gave me the email address of someone in the Deanery, who she said had been sympathetic in similar cases. It took me another month or so to actually send an email. I briefly stated what had happened without giving any details except where and when the assault occurred, and that the perpetrator was a student of the university. I got a reply within a week – the person from the Deanery, M., was sorry to hear about what had happened, and asked me for more details. I gave them.
I sat in the corner of a campus bar while I copy-pasted the messages I sent to one of my best friends the day after the assault. I couldn’t bring myself to write it all out again. In my email, I explained as much, adding that I didn’t feel able to talk about what had happened in person; at this point, even the sentence ‘I was sexually assaulted’ was impossible. The perpetrator’s name made me feel sick. I spoke – to the very few people I had told – about what had happened in euphemisms and vague hand gestures, and then only rarely.
M. emailed back, saying he would set up a meeting between myself and a member of the welfare team, saying he wanted to make sure I was being supported before any action was taken. I asked if I could take someone with me, he said yes. A fortnight later, my girlfriend and I were sitting in an office opposite T., the welfare person. My hand was clammy in hers, and I was shaking. Regardless, what followed was an incredibly aggressive interrogation, including T. asking me to repeat what had happened despite the fact that I had explicitly said I couldn’t talk about it, and asking – in a very accusatory way – why I hadn’t gone to the police. I was also asked if I had any evidence of what happened. I am so grateful that my girlfriend was with me. I left that meeting incredibly shaken, confused, and feeling like I was doing the wrong thing. Nothing comforting was said, nothing to make me feel safe, or to reassure me that what happened wasn’t my fault, or to be sympathetic at all. The closest I got to sympathy was ‘you’ve experienced a trauma’. Thanks, I know. I was there. T. asked me what I wanted to happen to the perpetrator – I said that the thing that concerned me most was the fact that he continued to have a job in a position of responsibility, in a situation where it would be easy for him to take advantage of the alcohol and his authority. I was told that M. and T. needed to liaise with each other before the perpetrator would be contacted.
That was the last I heard from either of them about it.
Over the following month, I sent M. several emails asking for information, which were ignored. The Welfare Officer who I spoke to initially tried to contact M. for me, but had no success. I have no idea if I lodged a formal complaint against the perpetrator, or if it was just an informal conversation. I had no information at any point of what the process might include, should the perpetrator be contacted. I am so angry about the way the situation was handled by the university.
This summer, the man who sexually assaulted me graduated. This summer, I had nightmares for several weeks solid, flashbacks while on holiday with my girlfriend, and a continued aversion to anyone touching me unexpectedly. The man who sexually assaulted me got a degree certificate. I got ignored by the institution which promised to support me.
The National Union of Students’ Women’s Campaign launched the #StandByMe campaign in 2015, lobbying for better support from universities for student survivors of sexual violence. How I was treated is just one example of why such a campaign is necessary. The Zellick Report is still having a negative impact on the way universities treat allegations of sexual violence and other crimes. Thankfully, as part of the #StandByMe campaign, the guidelines set out in the Zellick Report are being reviewed by the UK taskforce on violence against women, harassment, and hate crimes. Their report will be finished in autumn this year. I hope, for the sake of the hundreds of victims of sexual assaults at university, it’s an improvement. Nobody should be treated like I was.
The Zellick Report – https://nusdigital.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/document/documents/23549/42d324131bd90788bef69b1361547762/The_Zellick_Report.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJKEA56ZWKFU6MHNQ&Expires=1473616399&Signature=DaePSA0WyD807bkFC6S%2BHaOnf6I%3D
#StandByMe – http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/winning-for-students/women/welfare-and-human-rights/standbyme