Censorship in the Guild

Today, a Women’s Officer candidate was asked – at the request of Guild Elections Committee – to remove some of her posters from around campus because they quoted statistics from the NUS Hidden Marks report about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on campuses [1]. They are upsetting.

This decision came after complaints from a small number of students who felt that they were upsetting statements, reminding them (or potentially reminding victims) of bad experiences. As such, the candidate has chosen to remove them and not appeal the decision, because she never intended to offend anyone and this instance wasn’t worth the battle.

However, this note is being written to argue that this was a very poor decision made by elections committee for the following reasons:

1. It inhibits the ability of activists and campaigners to raise awareness about very important issues.
2. It sets a very dangerous precedent, which harms freedom of speech used for the best intentions.

1. It inhibits awareness raising.

The NUS Hidden Marks report is a study of over 2,000 female students in Universities in England and Wales. It reveals some shocking statistics, a selection of which I have outlined below:

  • 1 in 7 survey respondents have experienced some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. This includes groping, flashing, unwanted sexual comments.
  • 12% of respondents had been subject to stalking.
  • Over 1 in 10 had been a victim of serious physical violence.
  • 7% have been subject to serious sexual assault.
  • In the majority of cases in all incident categories the perpetrator was known to the victim.
  • 81% of victims of serious sexual assault knew their attacker.
  • 89% of stalkers were men.
  • 73% of the perpetrators of physical violence were men.
  • Students were the majority of perpetrators in most categories, except for ‘physical violence’ where just under half were students (48%).

This is shocking and upsetting – especially for those who may have been victim to harassment or assault (and statistics suggest there are many). However, sexual assault on campuses is too big an issue to silence. The statistics should be evidence enough that we should be shouting about this as loud as we can and trying our hardest to find the cause, change attitudes on campus and help the students who need it.

The report also revealed that of the students who were seriously sexually assaulted only 4%reported to their University and only 10% reported to the police. They gave the following reasons for not reporting it:

- ‘I didn’t think it was serious enough to report’: 45%
- ‘I didn’t think that what happened was a crime: 42%
- ‘I thought I could handle it myself’: 46%
- ‘I felt ashamed or embarrassed’: 50%
- ‘I thought I would be blamed for what happened’: 43%
- ‘I didn’t think I would feel comfortable talking to the police about it’: 33%
- ‘I didn’t want my parents/family to find out’: 33%
- ‘I didn’t think I would be believed’: 33%
- ‘I didn’t want my friends to find out’: 25%

Now, it is obvious that being seriously sexually assaulted will leave lasting scars on anyone, that will affect their everyday lives, their University work, their physical and mental health etc. If only 4% of students are informing their University, this means zero mitigations, zero consideration and zero help. If they aren’t reporting it to the police it means zero justice.

If as an institution we are committed to helping students and providing a safe campus, raising awareness about the issues at hand should be a no.1 priority. Sending out the message that these students are not alone and that they should not be ashamed or embarrassed, and that it is the fault of the perpetrator not the victim are all part and parcel of ensuring that sexual assault and harassment are taken seriously on this campus.

With so few students reporting these issues, the University is able to get away with welfare services that focus on exam stress, family bereavement and stopping smoking [2] – leaving serious issues like sexual harassment, assault and rape to be handled alone.

By silencing this issue we are perpetuating a myth that campuses are safe and that sexual assault is uncommon. We are hiding and downplaying a prevalent issue, making these students feel isolated, embarrassed and unwilling to ask for help. Over 40% of victims of ‘serious sexual assault’ had told nobody: not friends, family, welfare tutors - nobody.  

If we want to create a safe space, where students are encouraged to show self-awareness and respect to female students then publicly raising awareness about and condemning sexual harassment, assault and rape is a necessary first step.

In short, it is upsetting for a reason.

By its very nature, sexual assault is upsetting. 

2. It sets a dangerous precedent.

I think it is fairly obvious that raising awareness may involve (in the majority of cases) sharing upsetting information.

In this instance it was a candidate running for a Guild position.

Next time it could be a focused campaign about a major contravention of human rights somewhere in the world.

It could be a campaign raising awareness about the institutionalised oppression or persecution of a group of people in this country or elsewhere.

It could be a campaign informing students of an environmental catastrophe that had resulted in a very high death toll, soaring cancer rates and the destruction of important ecosystems.

It could be a boycott campaign raising awareness about how products sold on campus are made by workers in sub-human conditions.

The possibilities are endless.

I am worried that if our Guild is willing to apply this kind of censorship because it is upsetting, then there is little stopping similar censorship handcuffing Guild Officers, student groups, student activists from making a real difference on their campus.

The world is an upsetting place, and lots of bad things happen. We will never change anything if we silence those few passionate individuals who care enough to face the upsetting facts head on.

I implore the Guild to stop censoring its members.

I see campaigning around sexual assault and harassment on campus as central to the role of Women’s Officer. If our WO candidates aren’t allowed to raise awareness in their campaign, what chance do we have of them campaigning during their time in office? There is a big problem on our campuses, revealed by this NUS report. Its time we faced it and tried to solve it rather than burying our heads in the sand in the guise of ensuring a minority of students are not upset.

Safe space does not mean hiding widespread sexism and violence.

What the heck were Elections Committee thinking?

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[1] NUS Hidden Marks Report can be found here:

http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/NUS_hidden_marks_report_2nd_edition_web.pdf

[2] http://www.as.bham.ac.uk/studentlife/counselling/help.shtml