All this week on Refinery29 we are looking at the ongoing problem of sexual assault at UK universities and giving a platform to the students calling for change, once and for all.
I vividly remember the first time I kissed someone in a club. It was my first campus night out as a fresher at the University of Warwick. My friend and I were cornered at a bar by two older male students. One of them asked me to dance. I said yes and within three minutes, while Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was playing in the background, he backed me up against the wall of the club, launched at me and kissed me.
Less than a song later, he asked if I wanted to go ‘somewhere quiet’. I had never been that intimate with anyone in a club before, let alone engaged in the sex acts he was suggesting by going to that ‘quiet’ place.
Soon I would discover that I had been ‘sharked’. Sharking is a practice whereby older, usually male students use their experience and power to pursue first-year females (often for sex) like a shark would chase its prey: relentlessly, until they give in.
As an inexperienced and eager-to-please 18-year-old, I was prime bait, flattered that men – especially older men – found me attractive. Initially I didn’t see how sinister it was. Now, in the last year of my degree, I finally see it from the other side.
Higher education’s rape culture isn’t breaking news. Sexual violence has become ingrained in campus life. The 2014 National Union of Students’ “Hidden Marks” study revealed that over two thirds of female students have experienced some kind of harassment at university.
It’s only in recent years, however, that incidents such as the Warwick group chat scandal, which exposed private messages between male students joking about raping female students, including planning “surprise sex with some freshers”, have brought the problem to light. And it’s about time too.
According to its student sexual misconduct policy, Warwick “[does] not tolerate sexual misconduct, violence or abuse”. However, in my experience as well as that of others, the university fails to consider how the structure of the campus experience itself feeds rape culture. From targeted drinking challenges such as ‘Fresh Factor’ – whereby freshers have to sing a song, tell a joke and share an act of ‘sexual deviancy’ – to freshers’ events which are open to all students, including cis men, without any safe spaces for women and non-binary people, rape culture, particularly towards first-year students, is trivialised.
A brief scroll through WarwickLove, the university’s anonymous, student-run confessions page, reveals the extent to which freshers are fetishised in 2021:
“Tag hot, single freshers” reads one post.
And beneath a picture of cartoon sharks gaping gormlessly into the camera:
“*Hot first year girl accidentally walks into the wrong lecture hall*
Lecture hall full of 3rd years be like…”
Instead of being challenged, sharking has become a disturbing rite of passage that many female students know all too well. It goes without saying that sex and relationships between students in different academic years can be healthy and consensual but sharking is toxic because it takes advantage of vulnerable students who are inexperienced in university life and often in sex, too.
Twenty-year-old Laura* also experienced harassment on her first night out at Warwick. “[A postgraduate student] hung around me most of the night and attempted to hold my hand and stroke my hair without me consenting, and he later kissed me on the neck despite me clearly being uncomfortable in his presence,” she said of one experience on a society bar crawl. The society kicked the student out for his behaviour which, depressingly, Laura found surprising. “I never expect anyone to take these things seriously.”
“I later discovered a couple of other students had had similar experiences with him but mine had been the worst of all of them,” she continued.
Young women are socialised to accept this kind of behaviour as a compliment. There is always an implication that we ought to be ‘flattered’ or ‘grateful’ for the attention. Even though I always consented to the sexual encounters I had with older students, it was a consent based on toxic factors: wanting to impress and be accepted, feel desired, achieve a twisted sense of achievement not only for getting with a guy but for getting with an older and more experienced guy.
Sharking isn’t just a Warwick problem. “I haven’t spoken to a single [first-year] girl who hasn’t complained about being touched,” 20-year-old Reegan Kay, a first-year English literature student at Bristol University, told me. At her freshers’ week this September, she attended an event at one of the city’s most popular nightclubs. Although the club night was specifically marketed to freshers, Reegan quickly noticed that the majority of men in attendance were not first years – and many were not even students.
“We were followed into the toilet. People came up to me and at first it was just, ‘You’re really pretty, where are you from?’ and then they would turn to my male friend, who they assumed was my boyfriend, and be like, ‘Oh well done, you’ve got a cracking one there’ or ‘She looks like she needs a good shag’.”
The way my friends and I have been treated by men during freshers is absolutely disgusting. As women it feels like we just have to accept unwanted touching/ harassment as part of our university experience.
— reegan (@reegnkay) September 25, 2021
“I was grabbed by my jaw at one point – someone grabbed my face and tried to pull me towards him. Someone came up to me and started talking to me about how it feels to ejaculate after he masturbates to porn and then asking me if I’ve ever had an orgasm. When I told him, ‘I’m not comfortable answering that question, leave me alone,’ he accused me of being racist and just told me he was trying to help me out and called me a frigid bitch. This all happened in the space of a few hours.”
After she tweeted about her experience, Bristol University reached out to Reegan with a message detailing its support services. However, the university’s decision to send her a private message rather than acknowledge what happened to her publicly made her feel like they didn’t want it to affect their reputation. “I think that’s their main priority – it’s not keeping us safe, it’s keeping us quiet.”
Laura and Reegan’s experiences show how this fetishisation of first-year students is so normalised. In turn, this allows universities to get away with not acknowledging sharking for what it is: sexual violence. While anti-rape movements such as Everyone’s Invited, which has been compared to #MeToo but for schoolchildren, had a profound effect on primary and secondary education, the ripples didn’t quite reach universities.
Take Protect Warwick Women, for example. In the summer term of the 2020/21 academic year, a group of students camped out on the university piazza for 11 weeks to raise awareness of the lack of action taken by the university against sexual assault. As part of the campaign, students staged a sit-in to protest the way the university had handled the issue.
All of this may suggest that rape culture, at Warwick at least, is getting worse but it may also be a sign of hope – women are beginning not only to understand their experiences but share them, too. “I think we are in a really important historical moment in terms of women and girls talking about the sexual violence they experience and what its harms are,” Dr Fiona Vera-Grey, an assistant professor at Durham University specialising in sexual violence, told me.
“My hope is that [Everybody’s Invited] has changed how much society recognises and accepts the forms of sexual violence and harassment that underpin many women’s experiences. I can’t say I have necessarily seen this change in higher education myself but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. There’s always more work to do but I do see students coming in now, young women, men and non-binary students, who are passionate about ending violence against women and really well versed in the issues. They make me feel optimistic that change is happening.”
Faced with the issue of sexual assault, many people ask what universities can actually do. How can they distinguish between what is and what isn’t consent when most of their students can’t?
“What is needed is a whole-system approach,” continued Fiona, “not just an online course on consent, which many universities seem to now offer, but complete institutional buy-in to challenging gender norms that situate women as being less valuable than men. This is harder work and takes more effort but ultimately it is the only thing that is going to lead to real, long-lasting change.”
Now in my final year, I recognise that this change – visceral, real, long-lasting – has always been needed. COVID has changed many things but it hasn’t changed sexual violence; instead it has spotlighted how desperately we need to challenge the system that allows traditions like sharking to flourish and confront the behaviours we tolerate in others or pass off as a joke with friends. Women shouldn’t be expected to flag down a bus if a police officer is making them feel uncomfortable, nor should it be my duty to look out for fellow female students on nights out. It begins and ends with institutional change. It is time for universities to take responsibility for the toxic structures they help to uphold.
A spokesperson for the University of Warwick said: “While we are unable to comment on individual cases, our policy on sexual misconduct is clear – it will not be tolerated. Individuals who are found to have broken our values, either by the police or by our own comprehensive disciplinary processes, will face sanctions – which include expulsion or withdrawal from the university.”
“As a community we share a set of values which ensure that everyone on campus feels equally respected, safe, supported, and able to succeed without fear of discrimination or harassment. We expect every member of our community to follow these principles and we have introduced extensive training, including the Warwick Values Programme, consent and bystander training — which are mandatory for all students — as well as clear, accessible signposting to our Wellbeing Support Services.”
“We strongly encourage anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct to disclose via Report and Support so that we can take action and support them. They can report anonymously if they prefer. As well as using the web tool itself, there are multiple routes to reaching Report and Support – individuals can be signposted via contacting personal tutors, wellbeing support service staff, resident tutors, campus security staff or SU staff.”
“For this academic year we have increased our training and awareness provision for both students and staff; making consent training available to all. The mandatory Warwick Values Moodle Course is just one element of this training; outlining the behaviours that are not tolerated at the University of Warwick, potential outcomes if our misconduct policies are breeched and education around consent, discrimination and respectful behaviours more generally.”
“To support the online Moodle course, Warwick’s Report and Support team have run 15, pre-arrival, online sessions which focus specifically on recurring concerns which have been identified from analysis of the disclosure platform’s data. Students and staff of the University of Warwick can access the recordings of these sessions, as well as booking onto the live reruns of these sessions in Week 6 of Term 1, here.“
“A general Consent 101 session was also run by Warwick’s Report and Support Team throughout Welcome Week, a total of 10 times, as a core timetabled session in every student’s Welcome Week timetable. It is important to note, that ‘sharking’ is a form of stalking or predatory behaviour which can develop into sexual misconduct or harassment. Warwick’s Consent 101 sessions obviously covered topics such as the exploitation of power or perceived power, freedom and capacity to consent, the inability to assume consent and the fact that consent can be withdrawn at any time – all of which are unfortunately elements of consent that are often ignored by those engaging in this behaviour. We hope therefore, that these training sessions help to both prevent misconduct from taking place, and also to empower those who may have been affected by such behaviours to gain support and report these experiences through Warwick’s disclosure platform. Warwick has also invested in Consent Collective TV, which provides further consent education training and can be viewed in every Warwick student’s and staff’s own time.”
“Finally, we understand that it is important for clubs and societies to proactively eliminate toxic cultures or behaviours from within their own peer groups. Therefore, in collaboration with the SU’s Sport and Society Student Officers we have introduced the ‘Are you Report and Support Ready?’ campaign to ensure that execs of sports clubs and societies understand not only how to identify, safely call out and hopefully prevent different forms of harassment from taking place – but also how to safely signpost those affected by harassment to Warwick’s disclosure platform. We are also actively encouraging clubs and societies to take this one step further, and engage in Warwick’s Community Values Education Programme, and become Active Bystanders against harassment over the 5-week course.”
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “The tweets were alerted to us by a third party, so we had a duty of care to respect the student’s privacy, given she had not tagged us in them. We offered to provide her with details of our student support services but she declined, replying that she thought she had all the information needed.
“At the University of Bristol, we treat sexual misconduct very seriously and we are fully committed to tackling this issue. We have invested in and implemented a robust support system to help students report incidents and to ensure their safety and wellbeing.”
“We would encourage any students affected by incidents of this kind to talk to our support services who are trained to provide appropriate support. We have a large Student Wellbeing Service and a 24/7 Residential Life team who are available to provide support to any student who has experienced any form of inappropriate behaviour. We have also recently introduced a specialist team of Sexual Violence Liaison Officers who are able to support students who have experienced any form of sexual violence. Advice on dealing with this is also available online. We have also introduced information about the importance of consent to our online Welcome resources available for all new students and we will be carrying out ongoing work in partnership with Bristol Students Union to continue to raise awareness around this key issue.”
“If there are any concerns about the behaviour of other students, this can also be investigated through the University’s Disciplinary Procedure.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities
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