It’s exhausting, frustrating, exasperating and downright illegal. For every step made to end the view that women are things, made to scrutinise, put down and handle as we please, there appears another abhorrent ‘game’, another fresher’s event served fresh with a round of victim-blaming and slut-shaming in order to justify, to silence and to restart this circle of abuse all over again. According to Abby Young-Powell in the Guardian, students are sick of it. Looking at the comments, society is also sick of it.
So why, according to the NUS, quoted this week on ‘That’s what she said’, Femsoc’s radio show on Surge on Wednesday afternoons, do 68% of female students experience sexual harassment? When the use of the words ‘lad’ or ‘banter’ are these days perhaps greeted with tired groans and painful sympathy for the person clinging onto the echoes of prestige that their amazing banter got them when downing a pint of the last dregs of their dignity, after making yet another tired sexist or racist joke. Why does its legacy cling to our student body like the smell of Jesters the next morning?
We young men and women arrive at university as the fresh faces of the future, willing to learn and to have our voices heard. Yet we are silenced by others who will never view us as anything but an opportunity on legs, who will grab a breast or a bum, or more, to score points. We are encouraged to keep silent for the sake of not being a killjoy and we realise that the world of opportunity and mental stimulation we entered is a minefield, which in fact shames us for our clothing choices, for our choices regarding our own sex life, for the amount of alcohol we consume on a night out, for wanting to enjoy a night out without being groped or becoming part of a game such as ‘underhanding’, for wanting to walk down the street without catcalls and for being audacious enough to desire to stand up and share our knowledge and wisdom without being threatened with rape, or being judged not on content, but on the shape of our mouths or size of our chests.
The three hosts of ‘That’s what she said’ brought up two very important points. Firstly that men and women both suffer from and are perpetrators of sexual harassment. While on the one hand it is a tired and worryingly widely accepted fact that a woman in a short skirt could get part of her grabbed on a night out, there is a huge stigma attached to men being assaulted. The existing view still seems to be that men are always up for it and are more sexually aggressive, as well as somehow not being responsible for their actions if they do grab a woman who shows some cleavage.
Another important idea put forward was that there is a lot of peer pressure, which, with a healthy dose of vodka, can lead impressionable young men and women to be involved in what is actually rape culture, without intending to. Halls and bars are full of chants of ‘down it fresher’, challenges are set to see who can drink the most, puke the most and pull the most. Promiscuity is encouraged, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with it, there is still the attitude that men are some kind of heroes when they manage to pull, whereas women are often stigmatised and seen as ‘slutty’, or if they don’t participate, as boring or abnormal in some way. The view of university life and what it means to be a student can become skewed and one can feel pressure to harass women or be quiet about harassment in order to fit in.
Most importantly it was mentioned that peer pressure makes the situation understandable, but a long way from acceptable. As soon as you make the decision to grab, to catcall or to shame a victim, you are responsible and become part of something which can be very damaging to the person on the receiving end.
An incredibly important shift is taking place: we are gradually starting to realise that nothing ‘makes’ a rapist or perpetrator of any other kind of sexual assault, it’s an individual who makes a conscious decision to commit what is actually a crime. Hampshire Police Service have, in a novel move, as they describe it, decided to focus on the source of assault, not the victim and to underline that there is absolutely more than just a hazy line between consent and assault. Rather it is in fact a ten foot high wall with barbed wire and a sign saying ‘GET CONSENT!’ As a society, we are turning towards the real source of the crime, which is excellent. Even so, it still feels as though no progress has been made when going on a night out often means being groped, shouted at or worse.
Perhaps we will develop and perhaps the next survey will reveal that fewer students are harassed due to growing awareness of the issue. Until then it is our responsibility to create a safe space, to report assault when we see it, to try and stop it before it happens, to speak openly to men and women about it, to teach the younger generation that respect and consent will in the long run earn you more than a few lad points could ever, and to remember that we are better than this.