above: Landen Gambill faces the press after the rally to support her at UNC.
Breaking the Silence - Rape culture on campus in the US & UK (tw: This article discusses themes of rape and sexual violence)
I started my semester abroad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in January. The campus, voted one of the United States’ best, was beautiful and expansive, spanning almost an entire town with leafy trees, quads and impressive buildings. But I soon discovered that the beauty was hiding something. A secret lingered in the bedrooms of the imposing Fraternity houses, the mornings after parties. It was in the dorm rooms, in the bathrooms of the bars and nightclubs. For a long time, it was unspoken, veiled by an administration concerned with keeping up appearances. But the secret emerged, no longer held back by shame and silence. A word that for so many had been impossible to speak was suddenly on the tips of everyone’s tongues. It was on the front page of the newspaper; it was being discussed by reporters on local news channels. The word was ‘rape’.
Tired of an ineffective, victim blaming administration, which underreported sexual assaults in annual reports and implicated survivors by placing emphasis on how they should have acted in order to avoid being raped, a group of students filed a complaint with the Department of Education. UNC, they claimed, violated their civil rights under Title IX, an act introduced in 1972 to end gendered discrimination in state funded education. I first read the name Andrea Pino in the article that broke the news of the complaint. When other students approached her about their own attacks, Pino decided it was time to act, having herself been called ‘lazy’ by administrators when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder meant she fell behind in class. Over the months I was at Carolina, she grew to be a dear friend, and a constant source of inspiration and bravery. Pino, in a piece for the Huffington Post, recounts her experiences waking up, bruised and bloody after her own assault on campus. She says, however, that ultimately ‘What’s worse than rape is betrayal’ – the consistent failures of the administration in handling cases like hers. It was from Andrea that I heard that a fellow complainant, Landen Gambill, had been charged for violating the ‘honour code’ – a code of student conduct – by discussing her rape after the ‘honour court’ decided there wasn’t enough evidence against her accused rapist. This ‘honour court’, however is comprised of a group of students, established to deal more with claims plagiarism than sexual assault, for which they had received no training. In continuing to speak out about the way the administration had failed her and other students (including allowing her accused rapist to move in across the street without warning her), she was charged with creating an ‘intimidating’ environment for him – despite never having named him. For this, she could be expelled. The news went viral, sparking reports from major outlets like Jezebel, the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail. A rally was organised, where survivors and allies faced the media in a show of solidarity. Things needed to change.
But this isn’t just a problem in Chapel Hill. In fact, the US Department of Justice estimates that one in four women will be raped, or suffer an attempted rape, whilst attending university. Cases at colleges like Occidental in California – where one rapist found guilty was punished with writing a five-page book report – Amherst, Yale and others, reveal the national epidemic of rape culture in the shadows of these great institutions. An episode of Law and Order SVU was even aired, a mishmash of the stories of Pino, Gambill and others. But Pino, along with other survivors from colleges across the United States, is doing something exceptional: creating a national network that connects other students, aiding them in making their own legal complaints against the administrators who have failed to support them. Along with another survivor and Chapel Hill alum, Annie Clark, she was photographed for the New York Times in front of the wall in Clark’s bedroom, which displays a map, dotted with flags and post it notes of those who have reached out from across the country, with sadly similar stories. Together, these young people are launching ‘Know Your IX’, a campaign to educate other students about their rights. It has garnered widespread funding, and has even been reported on MTV.
So what about here in the UK? Watching these events unfold made me question the methodology of my own school in handling cases of sexual assault – and the answers were not especially forthcoming. Apart from the college apparently taking ‘matters of sexual assault very seriously’, I could find little information that stipulated how the university deals with accused students, or those found guilty. The NUS states that 1 in 7 female students in the UK has been a victim of serious physical or sexual assault (Hidden Marks report, 2010). The majority of perpetrators are fellow students. Of those who did not report their assaults to police, 50% attributed shame and embarrassment, and 43% the fear of being blamed for what happened. One in three was afraid of not being believed. In light of these findings, it is important to ask: are UK universities betraying survivors of sexual violence too?
Shanice Octavia McBean, Women’s Officer for King’s College London, believes that a ‘collective denial’ of sexual assault that exists on UK campuses ‘means collective silencing of victims’. She says, ‘It’s no surprise that a recent study showed that annually many, many universities never get a single report of sexual violence from a student. Meanwhile we know - as the facts from Hidden Marks show - that sexual violence is very much prevalent.’ Our universities must to more to provide students with resources on how to deal with sexual and physical assault. We must create an environment that protects survivors of rape rather than shaming them, and encourages them to come forward. Thanks to the bravery of people like Andrea Pino, the silence is being broken about rape in American universities: we too must face the truth of sexual violence on our campuses.
Ps: Know Your IX is in its last days of fundraising! you can consider donating here
- Emma Hope Allwood
Originally published in The London Student.