CW: Discussion of sexual assault

A sit-in protest at Warwick University has been ongoing for three weeks over women’s safety on campus.

The issue of female safety has recently garnered huge amounts of media attention. In the wake of vigils for Sarah Everard, outpourings of personal testimonies of sexual harassment at private schools across the country, and the movement “Everyone’s Invited”, the widespread and deep-rooted nature of these issues is being widely discussed. 

In connection with these movements, students at Warwick University are holding a sit-in protest to call for greater protection for women against sexual violence on campus. It began on the 18th March, organised primarily through their Instagram “ProtectWarwickWomen”. Three weeks later it is still ongoing, having provided the university with a list of demands to be implemented before it ends.  

Cai Kennedy, one of the organisers, explained the motivation behind the protest. “We were growing very tired of hearing about new cases; after Sarah Everard and the 97% statistic, women were coming forward on Snapchat about their own experiences at Warwick and also sharing people to be careful of on campus. We felt like it was pretty much every day that there was a new story.” The lack of response from the university after past protests formulated the idea for the sit-in: “it’s more obvious and you can’t really avoid it.” 

The PWW list of demands is divided into five categories; training, campus, support services, disciplinary procedure, and transparency and accountability. Regarding one of the most important issues, the support services, Brin Arnold discussed the weaknesses of the current system. “At the moment the Report + Support structure we have here isn’t 100% functional. If the support services were better, then people would be less reluctant to come forward about their experiences, because the reporting system and then the disciplinary procedure can be really stressful. The less that is reported, the worse the culture of fear there is here.”  

The issue is cyclical; a lack of trust that a reporting system will lead to just results and appropriate disciplinary measures discourages future reporting, the absence of which then cannot promote change. “There are people walking around who have assaulted people who either haven’t been reported – if the survivor doesn’t want to come forward – or in some cases it has been dealt with by the university but that perpetrator is then allowed back on campus,” says Brin. The issue is made more complex by the emphasis on confidentiality, and the idea that once a case is dealt with it should not be spoken about. “We have this culture where you go out to a party and you try and enjoy your uni experience, but your guard is 100% up the whole time because you know there are people walking around who have assaulted people.” 

A better support system for survivors immediately after a sexual assault is also one of their central demands. This would be an alternative to the campus security, who have a negative reputation amongst students for dealing with these incidents, and a perceived lack of specific training that makes students wary of contacting them, says Brin. Having polled their followers in advance of a meeting with the Head of Security and the Director of Wellbeing and Safeguarding, 97% (897 people) thought security were insufficiently trained to deal with survivors of sexual violence. In addition, their conflict of interests regarding Covid regulations and other university rules can prevent them from providing immediate support to the survivor. As there are also few female members of campus security, it can be a disconcerting or even potentially traumatising group to turn to in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault.

“We want an independent group so that they can just focus on the support. The immediate aftermath is the most important time with respect to receiving adequate support but also preparing [to gather evidence] in case they do want to move the reporting of the incident to the police.” 

The emphasis on education is also of paramount importance to PWW, to prevent the narrative focusing only on the aftermath and inadvertently leading to victim blaming. The University currently has an optional online Moodle on Warwick values, with a multiple-choice section on sexual assault and consent. They have since agreed to make it compulsory, although PWW argue this is still inadequate. “It’s subpar at best,” says Cai, “they use terms like non-consensual sex instead of rape, and you can also just skip through it.” Their suggestion of a written response instead of multiple-choice was waived for being too inefficient. 

“That’s kind of representative of a wider pattern in the response we’ve seen from the uni. If they don’t have to do something they won’t do it,” says Brin. “Instead of listening to what we’ve been saying to them in our talks, they’re [doing] a review of all of this, which apparently they had already been doing since before our sit-in started. To us, that means this hasn’t changed anything in their perspective. We’re pushing out all these ideas to them and they’re just bypassing our suggestions as the students who actually experience these services. 

“It’s just very disconcerting and a bit scary to be face to face with these people in meetings who are meant to be in charge of the wellbeing of the whole student body and they genuinely won’t do something if they don’t feel they absolutely have to. Again, it’s a case of prioritising efficiency over student wellbeing.” 

Warwick University has reiterated its no-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment since the sit-in began, although PWW argues this should be demonstrated through their willingness to set guidelines for behaviour. “We want the university to be very transparent with potential punishments and have that as part of the induction course,” says Brin.  

They also discuss the negative impacts of the university failing to deal with these cases appropriately. There is the risk that students deem it necessary to take matters into their own hands, for example by sharing the names of alleged assaulters on social media. “There’s no world where we hear about assaulters and don’t speak out about them, because you want to protect the people around you. You can’t just hear about a situation and let it slide because if people are unaware then they’re potentially putting themselves at risk, and you’re allowing them to be put at risk by not informing them of an allegation against someone. We believe the university policy should be harsh enough that these people are not on campus because it shouldn’t be down to the students. We understand the severity of false allegations for example, but ultimately you create a culture where people have to have a discourse about cases.” 

It is a complicated debate. The issue of confidentiality is central to the administration of justice, but its misapplication has the potential to unfairly burden survivors and potentially put many more people at risk.  

Other universities have seen similar movements recently. Sit Down N Shut Up, a movement at Exeter University, held a sit-in in March to raise awareness of sexual harassment. Two Exeter students have created an online community known as Urban Angels Exeter, to promote women’s safety in the city. The Facebook group has over 1,600 members and allows women to share safety tips, experiences, post alerts, and generate ideas for making Exeter safer. Similar groups have since been set up in Birmingham, Cardiff, Portsmouth, and Brighton. Reclaim Campus UoB has also recently been launched in Birmingham, as a result of discussions about experiences on campus of being catcalled and followed, and held a protest against sexual harassment on campus. It seems clear institutional change is necessary at some level; as universities pledge their no-tolerance policies and desire to stand with women speaking out against sexual harassment, their true commitment will be seen by their willingness to respond to requests and begin to dismantle a culture of fear. 

Warwick University campus security have been contacted for comment.

Jen Jackson

Jen Jackson reads Ancient and Modern History at Christ Church. She is a Current Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue.