Hannah Black, 2021 PR Director, and Caragh Taylor, 2021 Head of Marketing/PR, speak with the creators of the Durham University Survivors platform, a group of anonymous students creating a safe platform for victims of sexual assault within and out of Durham University, discussing how we can create a safer and healthier space for everyone in the University.
: Hannah Black, 2021 PR Director, Caragh Taylor, 2021 Head of Marketing
: Durham University Survivors
Tell us a little bit about the account, and what motivated you to start it - do you think Durham, in particular, needed this and what do you think informs this?
We were inspired by a similar page at St Andrews, which we came across in the Guardian. The page was created after a serious incident there, and so the page was gaining a lot of traction. We had had the idea for a while, and thought that this would be the right opportunity to make a difference and utilise a topical platform for better.
We creators are also survivors, but only began to have these conversations once we started discussing how common they are. There is definitely a barrier of glass to be broken, and it is sad that it took assault to talk about this. But there needed to be a space but where people could come and speak frankly. A Palatinate 2018 article showed that Durham is 9th highest for sexual assault, and so the university has been trying to tackle this - it is actually one of the few with violence and misconduct officers. Yet there was a need for a network, and we quickly had an amazing response - 1.5k followers; which does imply a significant issue in Durham. We have received hundreds of stories so far.
"There is definitely a barrier of glass to be broken, and it is sad that it took assault to talk about this."
What kind of reception has the account received, and did you expect such a huge response in terms of people telling their stories? Have there been any difficulties you’ve encountered around anything?
It takes a lot to disclose to a page, so we believe it is important to retain anonymity. For some of the submissions, this is the first time they’ve realised this is sexual assault, and the first time they’ve spoken about the trauma since this.
The scale has at times been overwhelming. It's important to pin content warnings, as we don’t want to censor anything at all - nothing is too harrowing. However one of our teammates has been choosing to opt in and opt out, and we encourage readers to do the same. A constant flow of such information can be overwhelming, and this really isn’t the aim. We want people to learn for a reason, rather than just reading harrowing stories and being affected - we want people to be mobilised by this affection. Our aim to be honest and to present things frankly, telling the truth as it is, and for some people this is the only place they can go to talk about this and mobilise conversations, which is ultimately what we are striving to do.
"we want people to be mobilised by this affection"
How can we create safe spaces for friends, or perhaps ourselves, in such situations where there may be a need for support following sexual assault?
This is so difficult, and I think we all need to become better at this - and that’s any time a friend comes to us about an issue, not just assault.
Creating an environment beforehand so that friends know they can come to you is important, as well as making them feel loved and affirmed. If someone does disclose it to you, there is no imperative to tell them what to do - trauma is completely up to the person and how they deal with it. At the end of the day, you don’t know how to deal with trauma if you’ve never dealt with it before. Thank them for telling you, and remind them that it must have taken a lot of bravery. Support them through telling their story, and if they’re getting emotional, just hold their hand and listen. Validate them, and tell them it’s not their fault. Ask them what they would like you to do from there, whether that is help them report it, check on them every so often, or help pull them out of PTSD or potential depressive traumas. It all depends on what the person wants, and if they disclose it to you it’s because they trust you. It’s important not to come at them with pre-prescribed marks of judgement, and don’t doubt them. The primary thing is to believe them and go from there.
"The primary thing is to believe them and go from there."
How do you think the education around consent and sexual assault in schools should be changed, and how can we go about educating those who have already left the school system?
Ideally, it should be taught differently from day one. Our generation isn’t good at understanding and setting boundaries, and this needs to be learnt from childhood. The way we understand the world now has changed a lot in terms of what is acceptable.
We need to educate ourselves and become better. Our page’s role is to create education, and encourage practicing boundary setting before it comes to consent.
It’s even the small things, like learning how to say no to people. Whether this is alcohol or anything else. It is a personal journey - people don’t come to uni with the knowledge of how to set boundaries. You become more complacent with the idea of trying new things, but there needs to be more focus on learning how to say no.
The ‘No means no’ narrative is rather over-simplistic. It made sense 3 years ago with the #MeToo movement and the first conversations it initiated, but it really isn’t this simple - it is so complex. There is emotional manipulation, and being coerced into not saying no. Yet there are plenty of ways you can say I don’t want to do this by not saying no. Turning away. To quote Florence Given, ‘if it’s not a fuck yes, it’s a no’. If it’s not enthusiastic, you’re not giving consent. The tea video we are shown during Freshers deeply oversimplifies the concept. Conversations are not black and white, there are nuances coming into show. By making survivors’ stories public, with different environments, different contexts, different levels of knowledge of the perpetrator, we can break down over-simplistic narratives and get the system to rethink itself. 98% of victims know their perpetrator at the time. We’re brought up to think of it as distant, but it’s usually not random. It’s a partner, it’s a friend on a night out. This is what they’re trying to destroy from the conversations upwards.
What advice would you give to people unsure about a previous experience, that upon reflection may have been sexual assault? How is best to deal with this?
Self reflection is really important in 2020, including looking back on anything that may have been racist or homophobic, as well as other experiences. Repentance is a funny thing, trying to correct something you have realised is wrong. Going to the person and apologising isn’t going to absolve you of guilt. This is for all genders, not men specifically. We want everyone to read this page and take from it what they can. It is up to you to self-correct and become more self aware.
Maybe write these things down in self-reflection, and ask yourself, what did I learn from this encounter? People realising they’ve done something is an act of becoming self-aware. For example, if you’re concerned about how you are when you’re drunk, start drinking less, and don’t engage in sexual activity when drunk if you feel that you’ll cross boundaries.
We encourage everyone reading our page to seek support, and even if you don’t know a survivor, you may be a survivor and not know it yet. This is a difficult time to be in touch with your friends and to disclose information, but just sending a message every so often checking in on people and helping and guiding them to the correct support networks can make such a difference. We are lucky to have known people who directed us to the correct resources, but we wouldn’t have known the correct places otherwise.
If you don’t feel like it’ll help you reading the page, please don’t - it can be difficult. Opt in at a time that's appropriate to you, and have these conversations in a very active, safe way.
There are so many helplines in the UK to help you come to terms with things, and they’ve had people speak to them for the first time ever about their trauma, and then using their stories for good. Its all about tackling it from the microlevel upwards.
"if you’re concerned about how you are when you’re drunk, start drinking less, and don’t engage in sexual activity when drunk if you feel that you’ll cross boundaries."
So do you think this is about age or about our generation?
There’s something very specific to our generation about our willingness to self-reflect. We’re more self-aware than the generation above us - things are more intersectional today. Even in the last five years, a huge amount has changed, and i think Instagram has a lot to do with that. We have also developed language in the past couple of years that frames things better: we now have the words to express what we couldn’t in the past. Self-reflection does come with ageing, but our generation is very language-conscious. We’re much more careful not to offend, and we see that language has a huge role. We don’t ascribe to certain binaries that have been previously deeply instilled. Just look at Greta Thunberg - she is making us question established norms , and is proving that people our age have a big role in challenging the status quo. There might be a tension between our generation and the generations above us, but we need to become more comfortable with calling people out. This tension is for the best - we need to address micro-aggressions and the language used around these. Part of self-awareness is really to do with language.
"we need to address micro-aggressions and the language used around these."
What practical steps do you think the university should take in tackling issues surrounding sexual assault?
The response from the university has been largely positive, and they were impressed that we’ve gone about this in such a sensitive, safe and anonymous way. They are already taking the right steps by creating a new role specifically to oversee the provision of support to those who have experienced sexual assault, but the way that consent is taught during Fresher’s Week needs more depth, such as using our stories to educate freshers about the multifaceted nature of sexual assault. It can happen to anyone, but equally you yourself could be capable of being a perpetrator, and hopefully our profile can show that. The ‘tea’ video is joked about sometimes, and this loses the impact they’re hoping to have. If we work our way up, looking at micro-instances, such as everyday language surrounding sex and assault, and encourage people to use our resources, this will lead to people having bigger conversations, perhaps about nights out and the links between sports teams and sexual assault. This will foster a comfortable environment for reporting, as recounting trauma is a difficult thing to do. More people should know that you can go to your college welfare first, or you can always tell a friend and a friend can type it up. College welfare on the whole is wonderful, and they are trained as to what to tell you, so for anyone struggling, this may be the most useful place to start. We would like to work with the university more to encourage this, and how they can be more inclusive.
Look out for everyone, not just your friends, and check in on people you know are survivors in this time more than ever. It is also so important to have conversations with yourself before other people, and reflect on your own past experiences. Try and then talk about these things in your friendship groups; and if it feels uncomfortable, use the page as a proxy to initiate the conversation. They’re difficult conversations to have and we might not always get it right but its better to have these conversations than not at all. 2020 in particular has been an unexpected year, and certainly a break from the norm. Let's use this time to encourage people to have self-changing conversations. As young people, we have to be the beacons of change. We have such a power to incite change, and more so than any young people in history, and we shouldn’t forget this. We need to believe in the possibilities of these conversations. The world is resetting.
National Rape Crisis Helpline - 0808 802 9999
24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline - 0808 2000 247
The Angelou Centre (specialises with BME women) - 0191 226 0394
Galop (LGBTQ) - 0800 999 5428
More resources - https://docs.google.com/document/d/1EugJZW55qz3Hfq-GxIbmIBu7njihL2qVg454UQlskFo/edit?usp=sharing (compiled by Durham University Survivors)