“As a fresher I thought maybe this was what University life was like” It’s time to acknowledge the rape culture at our campuses

By Anita Creasey

First published by the NUS Women’s Department

The last 48 hours have been a nightmare.

On Friday, the Feminist Action Network was compelled to issue a press release in response to this article, and this one, and the front page article we knew would run in The Weekend West. So what’s this all about?

Allegations have emerged that

Scratch that. We’re not buying into this ‘allegation’ crap. The media has published horrendous details about what one student has encountered at orientation camp. They based their reports on information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and directly from student statements. You can read some of the details here.

Our media release was met with a barrage of comments criticizing FAN from every available angle and we feel we need to respond. One critic urged us to “find out about these camps yourself instead of listening to rumors freshers have blown out of proportion”. Well, now that you mentioned it, we have interviewed a friend about her experiences at O’Camp in 2010. Our friend verified all of the details the media had published and recalled how she was supervised by male leaders that poured goon on her while she showered. She also told us about the ‘taco game’ in which male students ate tuna from a taco that was placed between a woman’s legs.

Need further proof? The Talk About It Survey, released in 2011, questioned over 1500 women on their perceptions of safety, their experiences of sexual harassment and assault and their experiences of how it was dealt with once it was reported. 67% of respondents said they had an unwanted sexual experience. Only 3% of those respondents had reported it to the university and only 2% had reported it to the police.

Surely, in the face of so much evidence, we can accept that university club culture is fostering unsafe environments for students. Surely we can also accept that, since women are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment and violence, that female students are particularly at risk. Apparently not. Having moved on from denying the allegations our critics have turned to blaming the victims: “As sordid as these allegations may be, they are between people who are supposedly mature enough to give consent. Their choice to pursue such actions is their own”

OK then. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment here and return to our interview with our friend.

FAN: Did you feel like you could leave the camp?

That would involve asking the people who had been pressuring you to participate in the activities I hadn’t been comfortable with. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that and I know others didn’t either.

FAN: Why didn’t you refuse to participate?

As a fresher I thought maybe this was what University life was like. I didn’t want to not fit in. The circumstances, the environment and the pressure to participate – students were ridiculed if they refused to participate or decided to go home – I didn’t want to make myself vulnerable to attacks. In the circumstances it seemed like the best thing was to just go along with it.

I know there was girl in my group who decided to leave the camp. After she left she was named and shamed and made fun of. She was the butt of all jokes and when we started university everyone knew who she was and that she had “pussied out”.

We are so tempted to respond to the myriad of other criticisms from, “nothing about sexual assault is sexist” to “mad hippie bitches burnin bras” but let’s pick our battles and turn to this one: “Why has FAN chosen to only speak out only after this flimsy West beat-up?”

Glad you asked. FAN has been agitating for O’Camp reform for months. We have strategies. We have shared our concerns with council. We have met with other students well placed to demand reform. However, it is only now, after the story has broken, that we can share these concerns publicly.

And right now, our foremost concern is for the women who have been harassed or assaulted and are having to read the vitriol on our page. The Feminist Action Network is a collective. We can support each other. We can take it on the chin. But the individuals who have had an unwanted sexual experience should not have to read this.

We cannot address what we won’t acknowledge. We can blame the media, we can blame the victims, and we can pass it all off as bullshit. Or we can take a serious look at our campus culture, and at the data available from surveys like Talk About It, and we can try to move forward.

Our own VC has acknowledged that “there is a pattern of behavior here” and FAN wholeheartedly agrees. We are drafting policy documents, motions for council, networking with supporters and just trying to keep our heads above water. And we will not back down until this pattern is undone.

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