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RTC Looks At Durham

TW - Sexual assault, rape, the Warwick group chat

We’re launching our new series RTC Reviews, where we analyse individual institutions - their policies, their practises and whether they actually support their students.

Let’s start with Durham.

The University has come under fire in recent weeks after the revelation of a series of repulsive lad’s chats. Screenshots of the chat were posted in the Overheard at Durham Facebook group on 8th September, and since then, further screenshots have emerged.Due to the upsetting nature of these messages, I won’t quote most of them here. Comments about men competing to sleep with “the poorest girl,” and “snitches get stitches” were the tamest examples I could find. The participants also referred to the 2018 Warwick group chat, with one mockingly writing “10 lads who got fined and excluded from uni… For making sexist jokes.” How nice.

On 23rd September, Durham’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Jeremy Cook released a statement, revealing that a “full and proper investigation was conducted.” Cook also seemed to confirm that the messages had been written by prospective students, as two male students were not found to have breached Durham’s values and would therefore begin their studies at Durham in October. One student has had their offer withdrawn. Other members of the chat were not found to be connected to the university, which has reported several of them to the police for attempting to sell fake tickets to students.

So far, so good. Perhaps Durham has learned from previous incidents. In 2013, a university rugby club came under fire for a drinking game featuring the phrase “It’s not rape if …” From 2014-2016, the university had the highest number of reported incidents of sexual misconduct, alongside Oxford. And in 2017, a student went to prison for sexual assault. These are just a few of the examples that have come out in the media in recent years.

That said, extensive media coverage does not mean that Durham is worse than any other university. Nor does it mean that other universities are exempt from the effects of lad ‘banter.’ But these cases show that Durham has a serious issue with rape culture.

So, how does the university deal with such incidents? Durham has a dedicated policy and procedure for sexual violence. The 1752 Group has also praised Durham’s procedure for managing allegations of staff sexual violence. Furthermore, the university has a Sexual Violence and Misconduct Operations Group, delivering “consent education” and “active bystander training.” On paper, the university seems exemplary.

But why do these incidents continue to happen? Is there a gap between policy and practise? In the case of the group chats, there doesn’t seem to be. But Durham must be consistent with its approach. It must thoroughly investigate all allegations of sexual misconduct, and support all affected students. Victims must feel that they will be believed. Having robust reporting and supporting systems in place supports these students when they are at their most vulnerable, which will encourage others to come forward. Having adequate sanctions for perpetrators may discourage others from following in their footsteps. A change in culture is long overdue. Otherwise, lads chats such as these will go unchecked and students will be scared into silence.

Durham is not the first university to deal with such chats, nor will it be the last. But it now has a choice - to continue taking a stand against sexual misconduct and work towards changing the culture, or be faced with similar incidents and more bad publicity in the years to come. If it faces the issues head on, it can kill two birds with one stone. If not, more students will consider going elsewhere, and more students will suffer in silence.

Let’s hope the university continues to do the right thing.

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