(Content Note: This article discusses sexual harassment and assault in detail).
My first term at Lancaster, way back in 2013, was overshadowed by the news of a sexual assault incident that occurred in the Sugarhouse during freshers’ week. To many who were new to this University, the news of this incident spoke volumes about the reality of being a woman on a night out in Lancaster. We are often reminded about how safe Lancaster is as a city, and in some respects this is true. But as NUS research regularly highlights, there is currently a country-wide epidemic of sexual harassment and assault incidents that occur under the radar. This sexual harassment is experienced far more often by women, and Lancaster is far from immune to it. In the case of Sugarhouse, the incident in 2013 proved to be a steep learning curve. In light of the incident, there was extensive training of staff and security on how to respond to these issues, and these positive changes should be applauded. But it is now well over two years later. The events which took place two years ago barely exist in the student consciousness, yet there is still a prevalent culture in which predatory and sometimes dangerous behaviour is commonly experienced. I believe we need to focus more on these incidents that exist below the radar, and the first stage is shining a beaming light on these incidents and accepting that this is a real problem.
Last March I ran a gig in the Sugarhouse before regular opening hours as an after event for a protest. At this event I was stopped several times by different women simply to be thanked for holding an event where they didn’t have to feel constantly on guard. This was the first time a woman had expressed any sense of safety to me when on a night out in Sugarhouse. Usually, I hear comments, witness incidents, or experience behaviours myself to lead to the exact opposite conclusion. I have had men get violent with me and my friends for refusing their offers – and after he was kicked out spent the rest of the night terrified he would be outside. I’ve had a woman mouth the word “help” at me because she was surrounded by men feeling her up. My friends have been pulled, pushed and pressed up against walls; but none of them saw reporting as the best course of action.
To explore why this may be, I would first like to define sexual harassment and assault. Many believe that there is something of a – for lack of a better phrase – “blurred line” when it comes to the mysterious art of pulling on a night out, so I would like to get my terms right. When I talk about sexual harassment, this means any unwanted sexual remarks or conduct. Anything which involves unwanted touching can constitute sexual assault. So why do we all find this such difficult terrain? I believe it is a combination of many students lacking the skills to properly navigate consent and men often feeling as though they have a right to women’s bodies, as subtly as that feeling may emerge. Grabbing a woman in order to show that you have power over her and to humiliate her is disgusting and wrong, but non-consensually touching someone you want to get into bed with and hoping for the best before getting angry when they say no is equally as wrong, and both can have a huge impact on the person this has been done to. Once this is recognised, the lines may not appear to everyone to be so blurred after all.
But there is another problem. Incidences of sexual harassment or assault are often understood in an extraordinarily isolated manner. Telling your mate that their experience was “not a big deal” and to “stop making a fuss” is telling them that there is nothing wrong with someone touching their body or making them feel like shit. In fact, they may start to feel like it wasn’t a big deal, and they certainly won’t be mentioning anything like that to you again, thank you very much. But what is missed within these dialogues is a wider understanding of how often these incidences occur and to how many people. When a guy won’t take no for an answer or decides to grab me without my consent, I am immediately terrified because in the past incidents like these have led to far more dangerous situations, or I have watched a friend have to fend off someone getting aggressive. The reality of the situation is that these incidents are not isolated but part of far more consistent behaviours which have led many women to feel as though they are unsafe.
In order to begin changing this, we need far more in-your-face campaigns at Sugarhouse than notices on the T.V. screens. People need to start attending “I Heart Consent” workshops. Everyone has to start listening to their friends. But first of all, we need to admit that this is happening, and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.