Changing a culture


CN: rape, physical violence, intimate partner violence, victim-blaming.

As soon as I arrived at university, I became painfully aware of the prevalence of entitled men taking what they want. Within weeks of arriving, I received an unsolicited nude from the then-president of the Bullingdon Club. Later that term, I had to pretend I was asleep while a man tried to rape a friend of mine in the same room. Incidents of this nature have not been uncommon throughout my degree. I’m now in my final year and I’m the welfare rep for a sports team. I naively thought that it would be a relatively minor role; something to tag onto my CV. But after dozens of allegations of serious sexual assault and harassment came to light, I found myself at the forefront of a campaign to prevent future incidents. This role has undoubtedly been one of the most emotionally difficult things I’ve ever had to do.

During meetings with the committee and decanal team I advocated for victims, providing anonymised accounts of the incidents. This was incredibly challenging on a personal level, especially as I was often the only woman in the room and often had to talk about myself in the third person, as I had personally been assaulted by the perpetrator. Over the course of this year, I was told that: I was too emotional; I ought to consider the feelings of the perpetrator; the feelings of the perpetrator outweigh the feelings of all of his victims; I cannot hold a grudge against the perpetrator; in insisting I was uncomfortable being around him, I was harassing the perpetrator; I should be thankful that I’m not living in the 80s; I should be thankful that I’m not living in the 90s; power dynamics aren’t relevant; my friends didn’t want to hear about it because it would affect their friendship with the perpetrator; his enjoyment of the sport outweighed my discomfort in participating with him; and (by the Dean) that the behaviour of women on crewdates causes these incidents.

While carrying out this role, I was in treatment for PTSD for an incident that happened when I was studying at a different institution. It escalated extremely quickly: from flirting one day, to sexual assault and threats of violence the next, to him physically fighting someone who tried to help me, locking me in a room, and causing me to fear for my life the day after that. As a result of this experience, I was very hesitant to protest against the present-day perpetrator, aware that the situation could escalate as it had done before, fearing for my own safety and that of those who would try to help me.

In dedicating myself to this project, I have committed myself to questioning how well I know my own male friends. It is no new concept to me that people can surprise you: when I was assaulted by a stranger in a club, I asked a friend for help. That friend then took advantage of the situation, smashing my head into a wall to assault me again. Becoming aware of the behaviour of some of my closest friends has been difficult, but I realise how important it is to remain impartial when listening to an allegation. Anyone can be a victim, but anyone can also be a perpetrator.

One of the things with which I struggle the most is reconciling my desire to find a sense of closure and personal peace with the acknowledgement that forgiveness and silence make me complicit. For years, not only did abuse thrive in silence, but it was actually celebrated and boasted about on crewdates. I cannot help but worry for the future generations of the sport. At a dinner, I noticed that the team was spread across two tables: one with the senior women, and one with the men and the junior women. This was no coincidence. The senior women (all aware of the goings-on, unlike the juniors) chose to sit away from the men. As much as I want to protect them, I am wary to warn the juniors of these incidents for fear that the truth would put them off the sport entirely.

I have poured so much time and energy into trying to make change, but no one person can change an entire culture. I know that I have done my best but I fear that it is not enough; I can’t help feeling that I have let people down. In staying silent, I am complicit. I do remain hopeful, however, that I have catalysed some change. If I have altered the views of one perpetrator even slightly, or provided the slightest comfort to another survivor, it will have been worth it.

Image credit: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos, Unsplash.