Cambridge, we have a problem: rape culture, complicity and accountability

By Xenia Haslam

Content warning: This article features detailed discussions of the reporting process surrounding rape and sexual assault.

You might think that everyone who attended the GirlTalk X Bold Voices event last week on rape culture at university would have left the talk shocked and disturbed. Of the 1.8 million students who arrive at university every year, 62% will experience some form of sexual violence during their time at university, with many victims experiencing complex trauma and mental health issues in the aftermath of their assault(s). Reporting sexual assault or rape is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when the nature of these crimes and the societal narratives surrounding them cultivate doubt and self-blame in survivors. Yet, rather than making sure that supportive systems are in place for survivors if they wish to report, universities are consistently failing to provide accessible and easy-to-navigate reporting procedures, and – in the rare case that a report is taken seriously – the outcomes of such processes overwhelmingly seem to reflect a desire to protect universities’ reputations over the wellbeing of their students.

Unsurprisingly, when speaking to others at the event it was clear that this grim picture didn’t constitute anything unfamiliar; just earlier this year, Cambridge student Dani Bradford wrote about her experiences of the University’s deeply problematic handling of her sexual harassment case, emphasising how being subjected to institutional silencing ‘isn’t just damaging – it can be actively re-traumatising’. As a result of the secondary trauma inflicted on those who decide to report, a vicious cycle has been established whereby other victims are de-incentivised from coming forward, creating a culture in which sexual assault is actively tolerated. Despite being at a higher risk of sexual violence, those marginalised by multiple aspects of their identity are even more disadvantaged when attempting to navigate these processes, since such institutional gaslighting is both underpinned and compounded by structural misogyny, racism, classism and ableism.

As an institution, Cambridge is inarguably complicit in the normalisation of rape culture. The University’s collegiate system has prevented the adoption of a singular University-wide policy for the reporting and handling of sexual misconduct cases, creating confusion about whether survivors should attempt to report through their individual colleges or at a University level; not only has this exacerbated the existing barriers survivors face to reporting sexual assault, but this has also allowed some colleges to get away with treating sexual assault much less seriously than others, as witnessed in the case of Trinity Hall’s repeated failure to take seriously its students’ allegations against Dr Peter Hutchinson. Furthermore, the intimate supervision settings that are so unique to Cambridge heighten the already asymmetrical power dynamic between academics and students. With no formal training for supervisors regarding what constitutes inappropriate behaviour with students (let alone on how to respond to students who disclose experiences of sexual violence), this has led to students being put at unnecessary risk both of sexual assault itself, but also of their experiences being invalidated.

The inflated credibility academics are awarded as a result of their perceived intellectual superiority has fostered a culture of impunity at Cambridge; instead of those in positions of power being held accountable for their actions – including their failure to take action against perpetrating students – it is those who possess the least power that are being punished for attempting to call out their perpetrators. While events such as GirlTalk X Bold Voices provide a valuable and safe space to discuss these issues, they also highlight the urgent need for those who aren’t directly affected by these issues to hold themselves accountable for the ways in which they are complicit in upholding rape culture. At an institutional level this complicity can take the form of failing to prioritise the welfare of survivors, while at an interpersonal level it can encompass anything from failing to call out problematic behaviour amongst peers to minimising the experiences of and tone policing the victims of such crimes. 

Those in the privileged position of never having had to worry about sexual violence need to educate themselves on what it means to be a true ally – it isn’t the job of survivors to open themselves up to the possibility of having their experiences disbelieved just to try to change the views of those unwilling to accept that they play a role in perpetuating sexual violence.

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, the following resources may be able to provide support:

Sexual Assault and Harassment Adviser: specialist University support worker who can provide emotional and practical support

Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre: a charity for female victims of sexual violence

Cambridge Nightline: a confidential night-time listening service

Breaking the Silence: Cambridge University’s campaign against sexual harassment and misconduct

Photo: The Tab

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