Billionaire Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosGage Skidmore

Until my final year of school, I had seriously considered returning to America for university. The Ivy League looked seductive to a younger me. I thought they had the brightest minds and the best teaching, but two things made me change my mind. Firstly, the SAT was a slog that I was frankly unwilling to put myself through. Secondly, I watched a documentary called The Hunting Ground. I found it absolutely harrowing but, if you can watch it, I couldn’t recommend it enough. In stark and exhaustive detail, the documentary exposed the way universities in America have worked to protect their institutional integrity by silencing sexual assault victims and fostering a culture in which the perpetrators of these crimes could act with impunity. To be honest, I was frightened; it contributed to my decision to apply to Cambridge instead.

Then I got to Cambridge and I quickly became cynical. I have more than one friend who has survived the very things that drove me away from those American schools. I have been a victim of sexual harassment myself, as have countless others. Last week the thousands and thousands of women posting online about their experiences using the #MeToo hashtag, forcefully demonstrated the extent of the problem.

At Cambridge I quickly discovered that the university policy was positively archaic. Accusations were dealt with within college and you were left at the mercy of your tutor – they decided what should be done. That is why I have been so encouraged by the new Breaking the Silence platform. I’ve navigated it myself: it is simple and clear, showing you all the options available to you should you wish to take action.

The #MeToo campaign was prominent on social media last weekPixabay

Sadly, it looks as though America is moving in the opposite direction. You may have heard of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s billionaire, completely privately educated Secretary of Education. Given that she reports to a man who has been accused of sexual assault by twelve different women, it can hardly be surprising that in September, DeVos announced that she would overhaul Obama era efforts to more seriously tackle sexual assault on campus.

“Without a government forcing them to admit they have a problem on campus and take action, they simply won’t”

For some context, RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) released a report estimating that among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault. So, when DeVos’s top civil rights deputy, Candice Jackson, told a reporter that 90% of campus rape investigations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk’”, we can see there is a problem with the new administration’s attitude. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report in 2016 that concluded that around 7% of victims of sexual violence reported their assault to a school official. Given what the powerful #MeToo campaign has shown us, there are an appalling number of young women not reporting sexual assault.


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Centralised support offered for victims of sexual assault and harassment

The testimony of survivors who did come forward can be even more harrowing than the statistics. One girl reported that an administrator at the University of North Carolina told her “Rape is like a football game. If you look back on the game, what would you do differently?” Universities in the United States are profit making machines; they have no incentive to damage their reputations or risk lower enrolment and withdrawal of alumni support by admitting that they have a serious sexual assault problem. Yet #MeToo shows that they do. Without being forced to take action, they simply won’t.

This is why I feel so lucky to go to a university that is actively trying to improve its policies and help its students. Many American students are not so lucky. My own experience with sexual harassment is that it is a totally isolating experience. There is no guarantee your friends will be there. You blame yourself. The hashtag #MeToo was so helpful for me precisely because I didn’t feel so alone – and that is why policy change on campus is more important than ever before. If the government won’t force universities to tackle these problems, students can at least shame them by exposing how widespread they are. When it looks like your government and the university that you worked so hard to get into are against you, one of the few tools we have is being able to shock society into accepting that we have a problem

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