Rape and sexual assault on campus is not a nice topic, but one that everybody at the university needs to think about. Amber Allott discusses consent, the myth of the “grey area”, and resources available for sexual assault survivors.
A little over a fortnight ago, I was scrolling through Yik Yak before bed one night when something disturbing caught my eye. Somebody was anonymously appealing to the Dunedin community for help. The night before, their flatmate had sex with a woman who was so drunk that she passed out. People were offering advice and support, but I was shocked to the point where I felt a little bit numb. Sure, you hear about this sort of thing every now and then, but here? In Dunedin? I’d always imagined that in such a small, tightknit community of students, there was relative safety, as well as common knowledge of what is and is not okay in terms of sex. I sincerely hope the woman is okay, and is receiving any help and care that she needs, but the whole horrifying situation has left me wondering; how much of the Dunedin student population are fully aware of what active, enthusiastic consent IS, and what it is not? And furthermore, how are cases of sexual violence dealt with at the University of Otago, and in the wider community of Dunedin?
Two weeks ago, from the 2nd to the 8th of May, was Rape Awareness Week. The week involved activities such as a quiz night, a clothes swap, the annual street appeal for Rape Crisis, and a regional Hui to enable various community agencies to network. According to Rachel Shaw, a community educator for Rape Crisis Dunedin, the primary goal of Rape Awareness Week is to inspire conversation amongst the community. She believes the people of Dunedin are at a “really good point at the moment to have that discussion,” in light of recent events on campus, such as a screening of American documentary The Hunting Ground, and a recent forum on student harassment. “I feel like students are ready and wanting to talk about this, and also wanting the University to talk about it – for me, the goal (of Rape Awareness Week) is conversation and openness.”
The Hunting Ground is a documentary exploring sexual assaults on college campuses. It focuses on several different areas of concern, including the failure of the institutions to report and adequately handle cases of sexual violence, as well as how the subcultures that spring up around university students can perpetuate and even encourage rape culture, with the examples in the film being fraternity and college sports subcultures. The film cited a wide range of startling statistics surrounding sexual assaults on campuses, and although most of them pertained to the U.S., one has to wonder how different they really are here. More than 16 percent of women are sexually assaulted in college, but according to the film, 88 percent of women sexually assaulted on campus do not report it. This is hardly surprising, when only 26 percent of reported rapes in the U.S. lead to an arrest, and only 20 percent lead to a prosecution. There is minimal data on men who are victims of sexual violence, as men face greater chances of being disbelieved or even ridiculed if they choose to report.
Reporting sexual assault on college campuses in the U.S. is a whole different kettle of fish than it is here. Universities are protecting a brand – like a business, they rely on advertising to promote their product. They want to keep statistics that would negatively impact their image, like sexual violence on campus, down. According to The Hunting Ground, this results in unfair and inappropriate handling of reported sexual violence; meetings with the Dean or Chancellor are ignored or passed off, victims are discouraged from going to the police, and even staff who stand up for victims face retaliation – getting branded as activists and troublemakers – often failing to get tenure.
I spoke to Otago’s Campus Cop, Senior Constable John Woodhouse, about what the protocol here would be if somebody were to report a sexual assault. “Often, what would happen is that the occurrence would be reported to the frontline police or campus watch – who would call for a police response. At that stage, they would call in a specialised detective who would have their own protocols for evidence and scene preservation.” With the police response, all possible steps for care of the victim would be taken. The University maintain an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ approach, and would wait on the result of the police inquiry before taking action. The exception would be in a situation where somebody would feel threatened, such as if the accused and accuser were in the same hall, in which case there would be an immediate response. According to Woodhouse, the University’s job would be to protect both of them until there is a result. Whilst support would be offered to the victim – in the end, what help they required would be left up to them. “Every case is different – there’s no blanket policy.” Still, Constable Woodhouse would like to emphasize that, “the university would never condone covering something like this up for the sake of statistics.”
The story I chose to open with is unfortunately not the first time I have seen this sort of thing on Yik Yak, although it is, perhaps, one of the most serious cases. People seem to feel safe voicing their doubts and concerns about sex and sexual situations in the app’s anonymous forumtype structure. All too often, people seem confused about what is expected from them sexually, and tales are told by people in relationships, male and female alike, of their intimate partners pressuring them for sex, or of feeling obliged to try some kind of sexual activity they otherwise wouldn’t want to, because they believe they are supposed to enjoy it. Rachel Shaw, from Rape Crisis, believes if people are asking questions and seeking clarification in this way, that there is a misconception about what consent is. To describe, simple and succinctly, what consent is, Shaw would say, “Consent is the act of negotiating a free and willing yes from your partner.”
Now, let’s take a look at what consent isn’t, despite what some common practices and beliefs may suggest. According to Shaw, “It isn’t something that only happens once – it can be negotiated at any time, it’s not a fixed thing. It’s not something that happens under pressure. It happens as a conversation as well – it happens between people, it’s not one sided.” She notes something that often comes up in her workshops is the term ‘grey areas,’ or areas where the situation is not black or white, which in the student population, can often come down to alcohol and drug usage. “Often students are surprised to hear that the standard rule of thumb is two standard drinks in an hour to give consent... People believe that if someone says “I want sex,” when they’re drunk that it’s totally fine, but that’s not the case. You can’t negotiate true consent when you’re drunk. ” Still, Shaw maintains that despite alcohol being a factor, it is part of a wider issue around the lack of knowledge of what consent, and therefore rape and sexual abuse, actually is. In terms of what some of the main issues with what students may believe counts as consent but actually is not, Shaw would say that alongside alcohol, coercion is probably one of the most significant.
Coercion is pressuring other people into participating in activities, and Rape Crisis often use the ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ analogy to best describe it. In Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s book, the main character doesn’t want to eat the titular meal, but Sam I Am continuously tries to convince him that he’ll like it if he tries it here, or if he adds this or that to it – he keeps pressuring and pressuring, until eventually, his friend gives in. Shaw believes that this pressure is present in a lot of student situations, even, or perhaps especially so, for students in relationships. “Consent doesn’t stop being negotiated just because you’re in a relationship. The stats reflect that upwards of 40 percent of sexual abuse is undertaken by an intimate partner – so it definitely still happens.” One of the key instigators of sexual violence on campus in the film ‘The Hunting Ground’ is studentoriented subcultures, such as fraternity and college sports. One has to wonder, are there any parallels between this and Dunedin’s Scarfie subculture, or more candidly, the image of the ‘Scarfie Lad’ that seems to pop up so frequently in it? We Scarfies are known – and often criticised – for our unique and vibrant party culture, which is known for high rates of alcohol and drug usage, as well as casual sex. According to Sr. Cst. Woodhouse, who has been our Campus Cop for around two years now, cases reported to the University are very, very rare. “Considering the number of students, the flatting situation, and the alcohol, students are often safer here than in their home towns. If you need help, Campus Watch are never far away; this is a pretty safe environment.” The problem then, rather than being the Scarfie and party cultures as a whole, lie in the norms that are associated with these cultures, in which, sometimes, consent is misunderstood. So, if you see somebody on Yik Yak or anywhere else questioning something that has happened, to them or to somebody else, the key is to have no judgement of the situation. Still, Shaw recommends giving people other options that can help them is the best way to support them. Rape Crisis Dunedin have staff trained to support people who may be unsure about what has happened to them, and whether it constitutes rape or sexual abuse. Their website has useful definitions, and links to other sites and services which may be able to help meet individual needs better.
Although the university and the police will do their utmost to protect and support survivors of sexual violence, there is a fundamental lack of understanding as to what consent entails is a very real, very serious problem here in Dunedin. It is not only our job to make sure, when we have sex, that we have the free and willing consent of our partners, but that we stand up for and support others. We want our city and our university to remain a safe place for everyone, and that involves open communication and acknowledging problems when they occur. Because if there’s no consent, then it isn’t sex. It’s rape.
Rape Crisis Dunedin
24 Hour Hotline - (03) 474 1592