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How Far Can Policy Go When Rape Culture Remains Stuck In The Past?

TW: Assault, Harassment, Murder

The ‘Reclaim The Night’ movement, from which our own campaign’s name takes inspiration, started in Leeds 40 years ago. After Peter Sutcliffe murdered 13 women, public authorities implemented a curfew, which women subsequently took to the streets to protest against. They were standing for their right to be out at night to ask why restrictions were being placed on their freedom to leave their homes, rather than it being safe for them to do so without risk of murder.

40 years later, they’re still marching.

Over the past few days, following the kidnap and murder of 33 year old Sarah Everard, my social media feeds have been inundated with reminders not to walk alone at night, self defence or emergency tips, stories of ghastly public harassment, and testimony to the lack of safety women still feel on the streets today. The picture that is being painted is one that depicts a reality for women almost identical to that of 1977. Women remain rightfully fearful of their safety in public, and focus remains unrightfully on what they could be doing to protect themselves, rather than creating a safer society in which these measures are not necessary. Just like in 1977 when it was decided that the solution to the threat of murder was to advise to women to keep themselves safe, the fact that so few men seem to be inclined to speak up on this issue, speaks volumes for the imbalanced responsibility that is being placed on the victims of this culture of fear and casual violence.

It’s clear why it remains necessary for Reclaim The Night to keep marching.

The clarity the events of this past week, and conversations around them, have provided to the reality that rape culture only continues to persist and perpetuate, has caused us to reflect on our campaign and what difference the reform of universities’ sexual misconduct policy would really make. As we’ve identified by looking at case studies such as the Warwick group chats, or by highlighting that 70% of female students and recent graduates have experienced sexual harassment or assault, rape culture remains a huge issue on university campuses. We’ve emphasised throughout our campaign that that sexual misconduct policy only gives one part of a story about a university’s issues with rape culture and sexual assault and harassment. However, like at Durham university, where a seemingly cohesive and specific sexual misconduct policy is overcast by prominent incidents highlighting that this does not render the campus free of sexual assault and harassment (see RTC Reviews...Durham University on Instagram); is policy reformation hopeless within a society where rape culture hasn’t changed in 40 years?

Perhaps, like the Reclaim The Night protests suggest, the solution we should be prioritising is an ideal where there is no sexual assault or harassment that needs addressing in policy, no perpetrators to sanctioned, and no victims that need support resources or reporting tools? Perhaps a policy acknowledging that sexual misconduct happens on campus reinforces an acceptance of this fact, rather than a shifting of responsibility to actually eliminate it? It’s been enlightening to hear from students actually using these policies, experiencing university life beyond these policies and rendering policy useless to finding solutions to dismantle the culture that allows for and even normalises that sexual assault to happen at universities. As protests this week have highlighted, education and how men can take responsibility for ensuring that women are safe on the streets are essential steps that should be taken to change the narrative.

On the other hand, with so little change to attitudes towards safety, could university policy on sexual misconduct be a vital element in changing this narrative? Rather than leaving students to fear for their safety walking home at night from campus, or misogyny and rape culture fester in sports clubs, universities should be doing all they can to promote zero tolerance of this behaviour and taking the first steps to stamp it out. The first steps can include proper policies and procedures to deal with incidents, and policy on sanctions against perpetrators that are enforced properly as a deterrent and appropriate response to incidents that perpetrators should not be getting away with. Additionally, requiring universities to have a specific policy addressing sexual misconduct in place can commit them to offering consent classes, and other educational workshops. Furthermore, anonymous reporting tools could give them a more overt view of what students are experiencing, and on what scale. Having no specific policy on sexual misconduct does not encourage a university to be taking these steps. On the contrary, it leaves the responsibility with their students to keep themselves safe. Nor does it portray to students that sexual assault and harassment are serious offences and will be viewed and treated as such. Of course, we all hope for a reality where no student has reason to fear their safety, where the alarming numbers of those experience sexual assault and harassment drops to zero, and where there is no need for there to be procedures or support in place for victims and perpetrators. But tragically, we’re not there yet.

Again, as has been the case so many times when working on Reclaim The Campus, we’re faced with a new complexity to our mission to tackle sexual misconduct at Higher Education institutions. Ultimately, whilst we maintain that all universities should have a specific and cohesive sexual misconduct policy, it’s become increasingly evident to us that we must advocate for cultural change - for it is both intertwined with questions about the necessity and content of sexual misconduct policy, and a separate set of issues that must be prioritised. We will continue to work collaboratively with groups approaching the issue in a host of different ways and assess how to face this issue as the events of the past week have given a harrowing view that there are so many more discussions left to be had.

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