Sexual assault at Sussex: analysis
Photo: Safer Sussex sit-in at Sussex House.
Content warning: sexual violence and rape.
Around 5 years ago, a female student at Sussex University was raped, and lost so much blood she almost died.
The person put in charge of her case was the newly elected Welfare Officer, who coordinated the Police, University’s Registrar and University Housing Office. The University subsequently took action in this case. The then Welfare Officer says that this was the point at which they learnt that “there was no clear point of contact or standard process for survivors at Sussex”.
A wide range of students, joined under the umbrella of the Safer Sussex camapign, argue that lack of a contact point and of a sufficient and consistent process for incidents of sexual violence are still issues in 2016.
USSU carried out a survey which, although not representative in its selection, revealed that 25 current students have experienced “assault by penetration (orally, vaginally or anally, with genitalia, fingers or an object) without their consent” while studying at Sussex. Regardless of the issues which exist with the survey, 25 rapes shows that there is a major problem.
Students have become angered at institutional inaction at the top level of management, which Safer Sussex say is “tantamount to complicity with rapists, and contributing to this misogynist structural violence.”
As this newspaper previously reported, students have taken action to demand that the university prioritise preventing sexual and domestic violence, staging a flash occupation of Sussex House.
A University of Sussex spokesperson said: “Whilst we are concerned about any student who has experienced an incident, the survey statistics are from a non-validated small sample of past and present students. The results do not match up with our own data and surveys, so we need to understand this more.”
When asked to disclose the official numbers of students who had reported being assaulted on campus to The Badger, they said, “listening to our students concerns about safety on campus is one of our top priorities. Since we received The Badger’s recent questions on this issue, the University has been approached by students involved in the Safer Sussex initiative to voice their concerns. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor has listened to the group and agreed to meet those students and the Students’ Union, at the earliest convenient time.
“To answer all the Badger’s questions now would disrespect the purpose of that up-coming meeting where we have agreed to discuss all aspects of student safety, our guidance and how this can be as effectively communicated to everyone on campus.
“Any instance of assault is absolutely unacceptable and action will always be taken, if this is what the student wants. As well as having guidance and procedures in place, the University provides training, advice services, counselling and support groups as well as having teams who work hard to provide round the clock support to students should they need it.”
As long ago as 2012, 1200 Sussex students signed a petition which urged senior management to carry out a series of reforms in order to better deal with sexual assault. It was handed to Registrar John Duffy.
Four years later, Safer Sussex are making the same demands. The campaigners claim that these reforms have not been carried out and they point to the fact that Sussex lacks an official sexual assault policy.
The demands included staff training, signposting, support for students and a clear reporting process.
In the years since 2012, Sussex has been lauded as “pioneering”, after a cross-campus group comprising of University Student Services’ staff and Union staff developed a best practice care pathway for staff acting as first responders to a survivor disclosing an assault. The University’s Student Services had previously engaged in a partnership with the former Students Against Sexual Harassment campaign, and now supports the I Heart Consent campaign.
The Union’s Full-time Officers say “through I Heart Consent, hundreds of students have taken part in training to help them understand sexual consent, including committee members at the Sports and Societies Conference, and yesterday – on International Women’s Day – around 60 of our Women’s and Men’s Rugby club members.”
However, this does not appear to reflect the mood of students, judging by the views expressed by Safer Sussex.
Over the same time period, The Badger is aware of multiple stories of assaults after which the victims were not happy with the treatment they received from the university. One student who was sexually assaulted in university accommodation told this newspaper that she had the university Housing Office refuse to hear their case, did not move the perpetrator out of their shared accommodation, or offer the survivor an alternative, leaving no option but to sleep on their friend’s floor for several months.
Student Services ran an “Acting together against harassment and violence” induction pilot in Global Studies in September 2015, but a perceived lack of institutional support meant that it was not fully integrated into iduction. Despite 100% of the students who attended the pilot agreeing that they would recommend the programme, it was not implemented. Student Services staff want intervention training to be an integral part of student induction, but currently do not have sufficient funds, support or resources to do this.
The Student Services’ report on the review and evaluation of “Acting together against harassment and violence” pilot in Global Studies was written and sent to the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group (VCEG) in October last year. The report recommended that a mandatory online pre-registration course should be implemented to ensure that all new students with the aim of raising awareness and preventing sexual violence. Five months later, Student Services have still had no response form VCEG. The Badger asked the university for comment on this but did not receive any.
The Badger asked the Students’ Union’s Full-time Officers about how the University management have responded to the Union raising the issue of sexual violence. Lyndsay Burtonshaw, Activities Officer, said “Over the past year and a half, the Full-time Officers and I have lobbied university management to take this on as a priority. In January last year I even told John Duffy, the Registrar, how (when I was attacked) the only advice given to me was to go to the police. He agreed that full training for staff likely to be first point of contact was to be put in place. However…there was no action or commitment made by the senior management, who are the only people in this university with the power, both institutionally and financially, to deliver on this promise.”
Safer Sussex say that most universities’ responses are structured around the Zellick Guidelines, which tell universities to send stuents to the police. They say they have spoken to many students who fear their case will get lost or dismissed if they do report anything. Safer Sussex say they would like to see the University put decision-making and autonomy back in the hands of the survivors. The care pathway expressly states that first responders should never involve the police without the survivor’s consent.
The Students Union has set up a cross-university steering group on sexual violence. Rianna Gargiulo, Welfare Officer, says: “There is more to sexual violence than just this care pathway; from prevention, to education, to reporting procedures and so on. We need a discipline procedure which supports students and takes real action against perpetrators, we need all staff trained to handle disclosures, and a preventative educational strategy.”
The University say they will be providing comprehensive training for First Responders to start later in the year. Student Services have drafted drafted a leaflet for First Responders to share with students which was circulated to the Student’s Union in December 2015. They are currently awaiting feedback on the content. The University told The Badger: “The University is committed to keeping its students as safe as possible. Working closely with the Students’ Union, as well as other students who can share their thoughts and experiences is an imperative part of getting that right.” The University counselling service offers specialist counselling from therapists trained to work with sexual violence, rape and trauma. You can contact Survivors’ Network or speak to a Student Life Advisor in theStudent Life Centre on campus.
The university’s current guidance can be found at: www.sussex.ac.uk/wellbeing/safety/sexualassault
Freya Marshall Payne