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

Business as Utterly Unusual

by Kristina Harris

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve seen more ‘business as usual’ now than I have ever seen in the entirety of my short life. I was walking down the street the other day where substantial construction was taking place. There were metal fences framing the torn apart streets. The gravel was coming apart at the seams, and the fences twisted and turned in the most confusing urban labyrinth anyone has ever had to go through to get to Shake Shack. When I finally escaped the loud drilling of chaos, I was met with a yellow rectangular sign that read ‘business as usual’. At this moment, I stopped my pursuit of cheese fries and just looked at the sign. I turned around and looked at the calamity of construction I had just walked through and thought, they must be f**king kidding me? NOTHING was as usual on that pavement. Nothing is as usual!

Nothing is even close to normal. Usually, when I talk about something being six feet, I am describing an ideal boyfriend or the deep end of a pool, not the distance between me and a friend! And masks? Do not make me laugh. I have never worn this many masks – not even when I was re-enacting the most dramatic scenes of Grey’s Anatomy on wine night. Never in my life have I felt more like a secret agent than when I whip my mask off after having looked  around the corner and not seen anyone. We’re doing happy hours alone over spotty Wi-Fi connections, and videoconferencing dates. And class? I have no idea. I slept through most of April and May because surviving is freaking exhausting.

Regardless, by whatever stroke of luck we are back in Cambridge. We are socially distantly making friends, joining clubs, and meeting girlfriends. We are doing Zoom drinks, and even wearing mascara again. The Zoom life isn’t all bad. I don’t really miss walking home barefoot, heels in hand regretting that I didn’t just wear trainers. They are back in style in a big way anyway.

For some of us, we haven’t been back in Cambridge since March. For some of us, this is the first time ever in the city. To everyone running around unsure which arrow to follow, and which side of the pavement to be on, don’t worry about it. No one knows what is going on. But, welcome back! Seriously.

This welcome is even more all-encompassing than it has ever been in the past because we have all moved into an alternate virtual reality. And no, we didn’t fall into Jumanji. We just slipped into an entirely unpredictable present, and we all found ourselves here, in this lovely town together. Nothing is the way it was, or how I pictured it. Yet, we are still expected to power through. To keep the world turning. To keep learning. To keep working. For me, it hasn’t been easy to stay focused, to stay upbeat and positive. I don’t even want to talk about how staying fit is going. But that’s okay! I am doing my absolute best.  

Which is why I am even more appreciative of spaces like Girl Talk now more than ever. It may just be the smallest corner of the internet, but this small place is just for us to be unapologetically ourselves. For our voices to just take up space. To take up six feet of space for that matter!

So, welcome back, or just welcome! Come to the blog to hear from other lovely beings at Cam who are just trying to make sense of whatever the heck 2020 is. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. And try your very best to enjoy your life. No, things aren’t the way they were, nor are they the way you expected. But that isn’t nothing. Some of the best times, some of the best nights are when you didn’t even expect to go out. When you didn’t make any plans. It might seem incredulously optimistic, maybe even freaking ridiculous. But business isn’t as usual. So, don’t make your life usual. Make it utterly unusual.

Image: wet pavement by Adrian Eckersley

#summerstories: Between Cambridge and a hard place

By Abigail Smith

As the summer rolls on, I’ve started to think about my place in life. Maybe this is a symptom of being a recent graduate, and seeing how young all the freshers are (is it cool to be 21?)

More likely, it’s because I’m entering a strange limbo — to quote Blazin’ Squad, at the crossroads. I have just graduated, but will be returning in October as a post-grad student to the same college — a fresh start in an old setting.

gals

@cambridgegirltalk on Spotify

We are excited to announce our brand spanking new Spotify playlists!

Our resident DJs, Emmanuel College lawyer Gee Kim and engineer Martha Dillon, are continuing to curate a series of playlists that celebrate the female voice in all its shapes and forms. From Japanese jazz to Brazilian bossa nova, from downtime to the dancefloor, the @cambridgegirltalk Spotify has got it all.

Continue reading @cambridgegirltalk on Spotify

Street style: #DressLikeAWoman

Following the Twitter backlash Donald Trump is facing over comments that his female staffers should ‘dress like women’, Alina Khakoo and Kitty Grady decided to take to the streets to ask Cambridge students and locals for their thoughts on gender and personality, dressing and comfort.


Polly

“I don’t think there is one particular way to ‘dress like a woman’. I make a lot of my own clothes so it’s when I’m wearing those that I feel most comfortable. I made this jumper, scarf and hat. I love it because I make clothes for my body and so they fit better. They’re so much more enjoyable to wear because I’ve made them myself.”

Continue reading Street style: #DressLikeAWoman

Grad Talk with Ruby: life beyond the bubble

For the second instalment of Grad Talk, we spoke to Ruby Stewart-Liberty who recently graduated from Jesus with a degree in history. Now working for the Civil Service, here she shares her sparkling insights and pearls of wisdom on how to shine bright post-Cambridge.

So, what do you do now?

I’m a civil servant, on the Civil Service Fast Stream.

Describe a typical day.

My day begins by squeezing myself onto the tube at 8.20am. The heady days of walking through King’s to late morning lectures are long over. Aside from that, no two days are the same! I’ve been to training sessions in the Locarno Room at the Foreign Office, attended select committee hearings at the House of Lords and I get to travel across the UK for meetings with regional teams. I’m currently writing a communications strategy for an exciting project.

Continue reading Grad Talk with Ruby: life beyond the bubble