by Kasper Hassett

CW: Discussions of sexual harassment and abuse

Conversations around sexual assault, particularly the danger to women, are often sparked too late. The horrifying, untimely deaths and treatment of Sarah Everard and Blessing Olusegun by police rightly attracted attention, but vigils in their names cannot undo the violence against them. They can instil solidarity between those mourning and sympathising, but often, once the tealights are extinguished, so are the conversations.

Students have good reason to protest, with rape culture prevalent in university settings. The meagre punishments for perpetrators of threats, predatory behaviour and racist comments in group chats at the universities of Warwick and Exeter indicate universities are failing to bring safety to the students sharing their campuses. Survivors of sexual harassment and assault are often made to feel that their reports are burdensome, with no ban of contact between themselves and the perpetrator enforced. Under the offices of university executives who ignore the issues and boast the institutions’ successes, students’ actions have moved towards preventative measures. Though the world may forget the names of victims and the crimes against them, survivors and future generations must be protected from further violations.

The UEA student body has responded variously. In March, the event ‘We’re In This Together’ united approximately 600 students in The Square, sharing and digesting experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Many of the placards are now on display in The Street against the glass wall of the bar, a harrowing reminder that, once the sky is dark and the conversations are over, survivors still carry their stories, and assailants still walk in spaces which should be safe.

The event was followed by the creation of the Open Your Eyes campaign against domestic abuse. Primarily active on Instagram, Open Your Eyes plans to execute both education and outreach. 

‘Open Your Eyes is devoted to tackling rape culture in educational institutions as well as advocating for university disciplinary procedure reform. I began this campaign after leaving an abusive relationship and reporting it to my university. I subsequently had many issues with the university’s disciplinary process and ended up wishing that I had gone to the police instead. We are currently collecting accounts from hundreds of students across the country that detail how they attempted to report [sexual assault or domestic abuse] to their university, but received minimal support, and in most cases were treated awfully. We have also researched the specific (and shocking) policies that play to the advantage of perpetrators, and are in discussions with several institutions and campaigns in an effort to reform these policies,’ says founder Lizzie Buckingham Jarvill, a current UEA student. At present, Open Your Eyes is collecting testimonies anonymously and plans to release them on their Instagram account @openyoureyesda. It will likely paint a disturbing picture of what happens behind closed doors across campuses nationally, but also help relieve the isolation of survivors whose experiences have not been told.

One compulsory assembly in school won’t achieve the shift in societal attitude towards rape culture that we need.

Lizzie Buckingham Jarvill

To eradicate rape culture, they are targeting communities and spaces where it is likely to breed. Buckingham Jarvill notes that ‘one compulsory assembly in school won’t achieve the shift in societal attitude towards rape culture that we need. Instead, we are currently focusing our attention on groups of young people who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of rape culture.’ This includes planned work with male-dominated spaces like sports clubs, to encourage men to hold each other accountable.

Open Your Eyes wishes to practice an intersectional approach, offering Instagram takeovers to a diverse range of people with different stories. ‘Making it into a space for regular takeovers is the long-term plan for our Instagram. We want to start shifting the online platform away from our own promotion and change it to become a space for other stories and different voices to be heard.’

Despite constant turnover in student bodies, movements from student communities are a powerful force to instigate change. The campaigns created by students to challenge rape culture, sexual assault and harassment, and domestic violence are carefully and passionately devised and will undoubtedly have an impact as personal stories reach peers and friends. But lasting change necessitates executive university staff listening to the voices of those who are affected. For this to happen there must be a shift in attitude – away from protecting pristine reputations and towards enabling safe student communities.

Featured image credit: Kasper Hassett

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