‘King’s is Becoming a Safer Space’: Panellists Discuss Surviving Sexual Assault for the ‘It Stops Here’ Campaign

On Monday evening, It Stops Here, a collaborative scheme between KCLSU and KCL, kicked off its campaign with an inspiring talk by a panel of researchers, healthcare professionals and victims of sexual assault.

The event was part of the It Stops Here pledge to raise awareness across King’s campuses in order to make it a ‘safe and inclusive’ place for students from every background; an environment in which any form of sexual harassment should not, and will not, be accepted.

I went along to find out what the panellists and organisers had to say:

Nik Jovčić-Sas

Nik Jovčić-Sas: We live in a culture where we constantly instil this idea on people who have been sexually assaulted that they brought it upon themselves

I want to share my story with you so that everyone can see the way in which sexual harassment can affect people long-term. My attack happened when I was 18 years old. A good friend of mine at the time told me he broke up with his girlfriend because he had feelings for me. He then tried to kiss me and when I said that I didn’t feel comfortable with it, he got very violent very quickly. He grabbed me by my hair, started to hit my head against the wall and then began doing things to me. It’s a bit of a blur from then on, but I managed to get away.

I went home, but told no-one. Instead I kept a journal detailing my experience, but a few weeks later my mum found it and she told my dad. My dad confronted me over what I had written in the journal and when I told him it was true, he didn’t acknowledge it at all; he changed the subject. This was the first time I tried to speak to someone about it, yet I received no support at all. I tried to forget, but as a person I had significantly changed. I no longer felt comfortable with people finding me attractive; I started to dress more conservatively and felt very uncomfortable in sexual situations.

It was only after I came to King’s that things actually became really bad. I struggled to make friends in my first year and felt completely isolated. I was at a club event when some straight guys on my course thought it was funny to grind up on me and grab me down there. All of a sudden I felt like I was back at that moment where someone tried to rape me. From then on I would be triggered by very small things; someone touching me or being cramped on the tube, not to mention the night terrors and panic attacks. In my third year I eventually started having counselling; 5 years after the actual event. It took me a long time to even come to terms with it.

If I could advise anyone who has suffered from sexual assault, the first thing I would say is that it’s not your fault. There is no excuse for that sort of behaviour, ever. We live in a culture where we constantly instil this idea on people who have been sexually assaulted that they brought it upon themselves; they dressed the wrong way or they said the wrong thing. I felt worthless after the attack. I felt like someone had taken away from me the most intimate thing you can give to a person. No one should define your self worth.  Everyone should remember that there are amazing people out there to help. It can and it will get better.

Former King’s student and survivor of sexual assault

Dr Stephani Hatch

Dr Stephani Hatch: The important thing to remember is that these things, especially in institutions like these, can be addressed 

We know that sexual abuse becomes a huge barrier in women’s lives, but I want to emphasise the experience of men as it is very much understudied. We need to think about ways to extend our understanding to include men, not push them aside.

In thinking about sexual harassment, it is important to think about related experiences, including experiences of stigmatisation and discrimination. A lot of the research suggests associations with depression, anxiety and substance abuse. My work as a sociologist is not only to think about the individual, but also about the contexts and institutions in which these types of events take place.

Regarding student’s experiences in particular, many studies have shown sexual harassment is common, with approximately 50% of students reporting cases. In terms of what we can do here at the University, there are three important things that we should consider. 1) The perceived risk of victims in complaining. 2) A lack of sanctions against offenders 3) Perceptions that complaints will not be taken seriously.

If we address the culture at institution level, we can minimise the effects and proliferation of this type of chronic stress, including the possible mistreatment of people. The important thing to remember is that these things, especially in institutions like these, can be addressed. Today is a really important step in moving forward and opening up a dialogue for sexual harassment survivors.

Senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s

Anna Dodridge

Anna Dodridge: King’s is becoming a safer space where rape culture is challenged and that’s a step in the right direction 

It is so often that when we see sexual harassment cases in the media, we only hear about the perpetrators and the impacts it has on that perpetrator. You just don’t hear enough from the survivor’s voice and, for that reason, it’s great to hear Nik in particular speak today.

The KCLSU advice team work with the university to not only help people after traumatic experiences, but to stop these things from happening. I come with the view that sexual violence is something that will stop; we have to have that hope and vision to work towards.

My team work in the student’s union to make sure King’s students are supported and that they can reach their potential. To do that, every student deserves to have their support and safety needs met. I’ve seen an increase in students coming to see us with experiences of sexual violence and personally I see that as a positive thing because it means that more people recognise that they can come and speak to us.

It’s really good to see that students are talking about sexual violence and the efforts that King’s are putting into resources, such as training their frontline staff. There is power and comfort in knowing that we can support each other. I think there is a shift in culture and that’s because survivor’s voices are being heard and universities are taking more responsibility for looking after those survivors. King’s is becoming a safer space where rape culture is challenged and that’s a step in the right direction.

KCLSU Student Advice Manager and former trustee for a Rape crisis centre in London

Deborah Clark: It’s very important to start education younger about what consent is and that no, means no

I set up a service that supports young people who have been subject to sexual exploitation and violence through 1-1 advice. The media have focused a lot on grooming and paedophile rings, but we see a lot of cases of sexual exploitations that are actually triggered by peer pressure and gang violence. For example, we know that a lot of gang initiations are revolved around sexual acts. The biggest problem with this is that the young person doesn’t recognise that they’ve been sexually assaulted as they see these gangs as a form of safety.

A recent study showed that many young people think that being sexually assaulted is the norm and therefore they are normalising this behaviour.  The young people we deal with don’t identify sex as we would; they see it as a form of control.

It’s very important to start education younger about what consent is and that no, means no. We seem to have lost that. Our main aim is that these young people don’t go into adulthood with the view that they deserve this kind of treatment and, instead of blaming them, re-educating them.

Nurse manager for Wise up to Sexual Health (WUSH) at St Thomas’ Hospital Trust

Thavarani Nagulendram

Thavarani Nagulendram: We started the centre to help our refugee community with domestic violence and drug use.
Our hotline receives the most number of queries for domestic violence, receiving around 4-5 calls a day. Everyone else on the panel has an academic background; however my experience comes from practical skills and working directly with the Tamil community. Most of the women we deal with often don’t understand what domestic violence is. They don’t even understand the words ‘safeguarding’ or ‘harassment’. They understand that they are being subjected to something that is wrong, but don’t really have the words for it.

The fact that women are getting abused every day has been completely accepted in our community. Even though there are some services available, when it comes to refugee communities, there are many difficulties in speaking out. Even at an institution like King’s, which does offer services, we know of lots of Tamil girls who go through sexual violence but won’t use these services that are available to them because they feel scared and they don’t think that anything will come from it. Also, they’re scared of the family finding out in case it damages their future marriage prospects and puts shame on their family. There are lots of services available, but when it comes to refugee women there is nothing out there.

Co-ordinator of the Tamil Community Centre in Hounslow

Hareem Ghani

Hareem Ghani: The word ‘survivor’ has connotations of strength, and that is exactly what we wanted to highlight here today

When Jamie Sweeney and I began working on the campaign last year, it became increasingly clear that sexual harassment was an issue, with 1 in 3 students experiencing sexual harassment during their time at university.

This event is a way for us to stress to students and staff that there are very real experiences behind those statistics that you see on a daily basis. We wanted an event which would focus on survivors telling their stories, on healthcare professionals and researchers who work with survivors to tell us about the barriers that survivors face, and the way in which modern culture undermines survivors or dismisses their experiences outright.

The point was to focus on survivors, not ‘victims’. The word ‘survivor’ has connotations of strength, and that is exactly what we wanted to highlight here today. Individuals who experience harassment should not be pitied; they should be idolised for being strong and for having experienced such trauma but still finding a way to come to terms with it.

Co-Founder of the It Stops Now Campaign

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