CW: this post discusses sexual violence and harassment.
Well, what a week it has been. Sexual Abuse and Violence Awareness (SAVA) Week had powerfully moving events and opened up some really proactive and encouraging discussions around issues of sexual violence in Exeter, as well as across the UK.
As part of Become The Voice Exeter’s investigation into sexual violence in Exeter, I have endeavoured to attend all SAVA events. The week highlighted how much more needs to be done in response to this issue and the need for a fresh approach to be taken to create a safer community for everyone.
On Monday, I was walking through the Forum, cup of tea in hand, the first thing I see is a headline of the latest edition of Exeposé– ‘Sexual Assault Triples in Exeter since 2010’. Many students say that they have lost trust in reporting to the police, as well as the university. This is a serious problem that Exeter has started to actively address, but it’s not just an issue at Exeter. It’s a problem at universities all across the UK.
The BTV Exeter team spent the week attending events, such as a private film screening and discussion panel on the issues of male rape. The film showed one survivor’s story of sexual abuse and opened up on his experiences with the judicial system following his assault and the impact it had on him and his family. The justice system in the UK has been under scrutiny for the way it handles cases of sexual violence and harassment, with the reporting processes and court procedures often causing victims yet more pain and trauma.
It was interesting to hear the panellists opinions on what hope there is for legal reforms when it comes to sexual violence. One of the current Exeter Speaks Out Guardians, Dr Rachel Fenton, said that there is little hope in holding out for legal reform and that the best way to tackle issues of sexual violence and harassment is through prevention and awareness campaigns that empower people to challenge rape culture in its most implicit forms, like sexist jokes. This is why we will develop a campaign in Exeter that will be essential to equipping people with the knowledge on how to effectively tackle issues of sexual violence and harassment, as survivors and allies.
After the discussion panel, we had chance to talk to a representative from the University of Exeter well-being services. It was great to hear about the hard work they do to make sure that students receive the right support. They work directly with Devon Rape Crisis to ensure that students have access to specialist support and advice, with wellbeing and welfare services focus on the possible impact that sexual assault or harassment will have on their studies
On Tuesday, the team met with Sunday Blake, the current Vice President for Postgraduates at the Student’s Guild at Exeter University. She is really engaged with us in bringing a fresh campaign on sexual violence awareness and prevention to campus. There is definitely a student-led push to increase awareness and prevention of sexual violence and harassment. Izzy Smith started a petition to increase safety on campus, calling for shuttle buses for students at night from Exeter city centre to student halls and popular living areas, as well as a more visible presence of Estate Patrol. Sign the petition here – lets help get it to 15,000 signatures; a collaborative team effort is what is needed to truly begin to tackle this issue.
Recognise Red collaborated with Razz magazine to highlight the issues of sexual violence in a post #MeToo age. Recognise Red work to educate people on what constitutes as sexual violence through RED: Recognise, Engage and Discuss. Their anonymous stories campaign through their Instagram allows students to let their stories be heard confidentially. Check out their work here! They’ve also recently launched their Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign, with an event partnering with Sister Sounds to celebrate female talent in the community.
Our Head of Student Relations, Laura Pain, took time to talk to Estate Patrol and found out about the Hollie Guard app, which turns your phone into personal safety device. Whether you’re in danger, meeting someone or travelling, this app was designed to keep people safe. This app comes from The Hollie Gazzard Trust, which was set up after the murder of 20-year-old Hollie by an ex-partner in 2014. Find out more about their work tackling domestic violence and promotion of healthy relationships here.
It was a week of difficult topics but what was particularly disturbing was learning of the UK university use of ‘gagging orders’ (non-disclosure agreements) that silence survivors and can involve a pay out of £250 to £40,000 (Rianna Croxford, 2020). On a more positive note, the University of Exeter is currently trying to get an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA), as a central point of call for students to contact in the event that they experience any kind of sexual harassment. The university also held sexual violence and harassment bystander intervention training, run by Tender, for students to attend. The engaging workshop went through useful things we can do, whether that be Asking for Angela at the bar or calling out sexist jokes in the pub, it was empowering to see how simple actions have the ability to make a difference.
So, Sexual Abuse and Violence Awareness Week is over. But the issues aren’t. This past week evidenced really great work raising awareness and tackling issues of sexual violence and harassment, however, there is still more to be done. Particularly, we observed the current approach to be scattered and therefore a need to bring all support services together to ensure effective and efficient work. Also a need to bring all support services into one accessible information document.
It is clear that a focus on the root, rather than simply on what to do in the case of an incident, is where the difficult conversations lie but also important work is lacking. A fresh and engaging campaign on how to foster a safe environment around sex is therefore in the making. Lights on, sufficiently trained student societies, an ISVA on campus, better awareness of the different support services amongst students are a few take away points for us at BTV this week.
Become The Voice has and still is conducting a survey into sexual violence in Exeter: what students have experienced and what change they want to see happen on campus and in the community. If you haven’t already, you can take the survey here and have your voice heard!
As Gandhi once said – Be The Change You Wish to See in the World.