The day I left home for university in London, my mother looked at me and, after taking in a tight breath of air, warned me not to let anyone into my rented room, especially male students. It was a baffling rule that didn’t have any foundation in the real world and demonstrated more about her fears of strangers (and men) than anything else. Of course, within the first twenty-four hours of arriving in the busy, bustling halls of residence that became my home for a year, I’d let four people into my room: one female fresher to chat about our shared interest in music and three others (two males and a female) to decide who would be the social rep for the corridor (which, happily, ended up being me). As you’d expect, no one got sexually harassed, as my mother was clearly implying might happen.
I saw that she was only trying to protect me, but her fears were overspills of past concerns, caring at their core, but not practical, realistic or necessary. As a balanced person who’d already built up a strong social network before going to university, I was able to draw on previous experience of meeting different people to see the error of her judgement and make my own decision – in this case, to accept other students into my world as long as I could see that they were honest, friendly and carried with them no ulterior motive.
Within a week, my mother had warned me of two more potential dangers: walking around alone at night on the streets of London in case I was approached by a stranger and talking to people I didn’t know on buses, the mode of transport I regularly used to get from halls to campus or to go on nights out. Clearly her fears hadn’t abated – and I soon discovered she wasn’t entirely wrong to mention them.
In my second semester, I was faced with two separate, but unnervingly comparable incidents. The first involved a man I’ll call The Professor. A leading specialist in his chosen subject, he was well-spoken and had travelled the world researching his area of expertise. Much of his work appeared in prominent research papers. He was larger than life with a strong personality, a matching physique and commanding presence and was not prone to backing down at work or in other aspects of his life. I respected him for his scientific knowledge and his passion for the subject, but that respect faltered when, one evening following one of his lectures, he caught me leaving the room later than everyone else (I was checking my bag for something I thought I’d misplaced) and he asked me, in an uncharacteristically slimy, ‘sexy’ tone, if I’d like to go back to his rented room to share a bottle of wine because he didn’t see his family during the week and was lonely.
The second incident involved a man I’ll call The Doctor. Also in his forties, highly respected and in a position of some authority, The Doctor wasn’t as direct as The Professor had been. He and I had known of one another socially, but were not friends. He used to hang around the student bar I went to after his shift at the hospital. After a few brief attempts to get me talking and eventually succeeding, he started becoming pressurising towards me about becoming his wife – as ridiculous as it sounds given I barely knew him. It’s certainly not sexual assault and no crime was committed in this case either, but it was still very unusual behaviour, fuelled by drink and his inability to cope with the long, tough hours many hospital doctors deal with admirably.
The point in both cases is that these men were well-paid, highly respected professionals with families and children (yes, I later discovered The Doctor was lying by omission about wanting a wife – he already had one) and are not violent maniacs off some street corner or young freshers attacking their fellow students in a halls of residence (although, of course, both crimes can happen). So my mother was right to raise the issue of unwanted sexual attention, but what she didn’t realise was that she needed to question her own beliefs and biases and recalibrate her comments to take into consideration the very real risk that an older, more respected person might hurt her daughter instead.
My mother was suffering from her inherent biases. She gave me the advice she thought I needed based on the facts she thought she knew. And she is not alone. Parents, school teachers, other university staff all need to be aware that sexual abuse is most commonly perpetrated by men known to the victim (3 out of 4 cases) and is more under-reported when that man is in a prominent, authoritative position of relative power, be it in an educational setting, a religious order or a family environment. It is simply not true that only strangers or drunk people manipulate and abuse (although alcohol is a major factor in many cases of sexual abuse). Anyone who thinks so is falling back on their biases.
The next – and for me, most shocking element of this whole situation – is the way, as the Guardian succinctly reports today, many young women who complain to their university about what’s happened to them are ignored or, worse, made to feel they are the ones “on trial”. I wonder (and I might ask) how my mother would have felt had I been harassed by a professor and, when I made a complaint, the person in question was fully supported by the university and allowed to continue working there while I was left to feel ashamed and blamed. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened to many women (and some young men) in hundreds of real-life cases.
So, after the revelations today about the extent of sexual harassment in British universities by academics in prominent positions, it’s clear to me that these individuals pose a far greater risk to women (and, if they’re female abusers, young men). In my first month at University, I made many male (and female) friends, all of whom treated me with respect and, on the rare occasion when they did find me interesting and wanted to chat to me or offer me a drink, for example, they also gracefully accepted no for an answer if I chose to decline – and that applied even when some of them had had a lot to drink.
On the other hand, in the case of The Professor and The Doctor, I immediately saw their ‘interest’ for what it was – lies and deceit to serve their own selfish purposes – and rejected their advances assertively and without fear of repercussion, but I can completely understand how others might find this difficult, potentially becoming ensnared by a manipulative character or made to feel obliged to accept an offer of hospitality from a respected person. I’m sure my situation could have turned out differently. Perhaps if The Professor hadn’t been quite as obviously and unpleasantly smarmy and seemed totally genuine in his offer of a drink, I’d have accepted and thought nothing of it. Perhaps if The Doctor hadn’t said something so ludicrous as a marriage proposal and instead asked me for a simple walk outside, I’d have said yes and put myself in a risky situation. The point is, I can see how easy it would be, given slightly different circumstances, to not fully recognise the true nature of a manipulative person’s advances. Manipulation, by its very nature, is subtle, scheming and can be dressed up as an offer of friendship, a cry of loneliness or simple generosity.
My experiences aside, there is an important message to be heard for everyone. No victim of a sexual attack is at fault, no matter what. It is always the fault of the abusive person, entirely and without question. Anyone who questions the responsibility of the abuser or implies the victim is to blame in any way, is perpetrating a subtle form of abuse themselves – enabling blame and fault shifting to protect the real culprit. It’s of desperate importance that we all challenge our fears to fight sexual abuse. I also hope that any woman (or indeed man) who has been targeted by a so-called respected individual from one of our universities, knows that many people will listen and believe them and can therefore have the confidence in their own judgement to get the help, support and possibly legal advice they need and deserve – and is not put off by the thought that someone might ask them to keep quiet or accept blame. If anyone does so, my advice, although it can be difficult, is go to the police and explain to them what’s happening.
And to anyone who supports in any way an abusive or manipulative person, who covers up for someone they respect to save their skin or the reputation of the university to ensure funding (this really happens), shame on you.
Had a similar experience or know someone who has? Post your comments here (keep scrolling down), via Twitter @carlahkrueger or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your story will be treated with respect should you choose to share it. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has been sexually abused or harassed, visit Citizen’s Advice UK for more information on how to get help. Are you a student who wants advice on how to stay safe on campus? Check out these tips from RAINN (the US’s largest sexual abuse prevention network). And here is the full Guardian article about harassment at British universities.
You might also like to read about sex, fear and unexpected bravery: embracing every challenge, when a kiss with a fist isn’t better at all or you could join the big sex chat.