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"...a plaster on a gushing wound..."

Tyra, University of Sheffield on how her experiences with sexual harassment increased when she started attending university.

I rarely had any encounters with sexual assault before the age of 18. This changed quite dramatically when I started university.

While there is a myriad of reasons that sexual assault can and does occur on campus, from my own personal experience the situations that led to these events always involved drinking, usually binge-drinking. I found once I came to university that I was expected to drink a lot, and often, and I wasn’t really inclined to challenge this – I didn’t know many people at the time who were. We were occasionally thrown a warning by a lecturer or online questionnaire to drink water, or not to binge-drink too often, but everything that I encountered in Sheffield when I arrived for freshers had one sole message: Drink a lot, and do it often. Drugs went hand-in-hand with drinking as well. And amidst the chaos of nights outs – the crowds, the lights, blaring music and shots shots shots, myself and my friends were highly vulnerable to a toxic culture that centred on sex in my university.

Let’s clarify: obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having a few drinks every now and then. But I observed a number of people, mainly men but sometimes women, who took the drunkenness of others as an opportunity to take advantage – to kiss, grope, or take home somebody who clearly was not in full control of themselves. To capitalise on the toxic drinking culture that is entwined with the whole concept of the ‘university experience’. For many people, university isn’t university if you’re not trollied out of your head, being sick on yourself and stumbling around the high street on the way to McDonalds. Of course, there are bad people that will take this as an opportunity. But universities themselves need to take more preventative measures to ensure that this doesn’t happen, while taking cases where it does much more seriously. Perhaps this is not universal, but on the University of Sheffield campus we were not educated on what constitutes sexual assault at all.

Starting university meant that I was plunged headfirst into this culture. Prior to this, my most excessive drinking experience had been my 18th birthday when me and three of my friends had half a bottle of Passoa between us and two of them couldn’t handle it and threw up. So, you could say we weren’t exactly seasoned drinkers. I would say there’s a commonality of drinking your problems away at university, which is exactly what I started to do when I was in second year and experiencing a number of difficulties that led me to a deep depression. Tied into this drinking your problems away, was the ‘lad’ culture and unhealthy (in my opinion) attitudes towards sex. For most people I knew at this point, sex was a way of scoring some strange university brownie points. Due to this, a number of people I knew were assaulted on campus, including myself.

Being groped in a club on campus, especially the students’ union, became so commonplace that if I complained about it, nobody seemed especially shocked or enraged. Just the opposite in fact – when I told some friends that I had been groped in a late bar and turned around to smack the man that had done it in the face, they seemed put-out that I had reacted in such a violent way. I have been grabbed multiple times on many occasions. I have had men I don’t know come up behind me and just start grinding on me without provocation. On one particularly horrible night, a man followed me as I left a local club shouting obscenities at me. As I was waiting on West Street for an uber home, he rounded the corner and asked me to kiss him. When I refused, he grabbed my face with his hand and started trying to force my chin up to his so that he could force a kiss on me.

The toxic culture around drinking, sex and sexual harassment has come to such a head that having a security guard simply try to catch an act like this as it’s happening is just not good enough – a plaster on a gushing wound. Universities need to be more heavily involved and proactive about the safety of their students.

Speaking to the security guards who worked at the student’s union, I was told horrific stories of how certain men would come to the club nights alone, waiting on the wings of the dance floor. If a girl stumbled by who seemed incapable of making her own decisions, they would try to take her home, claiming to be her friend. While security are clearly attuned to these things happening enough that they catch them as they’re happening, they can’t catch it all the time. The toxic culture around drinking, sex and sexual harassment has come to such a head that having a security guard simply try to catch an act like this as it’s happening is just not good enough – a plaster on a gushing wound. Universities need to be more heavily involved and proactive about the safety of their students.

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