Joe Cook

Content Note: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment.

“Maybe he does this to you on nights out because he feels really guilty about it.”

Emma* fiddled with the sleeve of her shirt as she wondered how to respond to this.

She was sexually harassed and threatened by a fellow student at King’s College Cambridge.

With the support of her friends, she spoke to the college nurse who she says was extremely supportive and suggested she talk to her tutor to make the next step: a formal complaint.

But it almost did not matter that the nurse had been understanding. When she went to talk to her tutor, she was met with doubt, condescension and disregard.

After explaining everything that had happened: that the other student had sexually harassed her, threatened her on several occasions and that he made her feel unsafe in her own college, her tutor said, “Well maybe he does this to you on nights out because he feels really guilty about it.”

Emma was shocked by this response, and replied, “Well, I don’t care if he feels guilty about it.”

The tutor continued to defend her harasser. “Sometimes boys can act out because they feel guilty but don’t know how to apologise.”

Following this, Emma had nothing left to say, at least not to her tutor: “I don’t care if he feels guilty, but he’s making me feel unsafe. If he needs to work through those emotions, he can do that on his own.”

“As soon as someone says, ‘this isn’t important’, you’re never going to pursue it.”

The tutor then suggested informal ways to “resolve the problem”, such as Emma messaging him to talk about the incidents. They also suggested getting Emma and her harasser in a room together with their respective tutors to “talk it out.”

Although Emma went to the tutor with clear intentions, knowing she wanted her harasser to face consequences for his actions, she left that office feeling small and unsure. “I think when something bad happens to you like this, you’re really on the fence about speaking anyone about it anyway because I felt quite ashamed for a while.”

Her tutor offered to meet with her again, but according to Emma, they made it clear they weren’t “going to take it to the senior tutor.”

“As soon as someone says, ‘This isn’t important’, you’re never going to pursue it.”

In October 2017, Cambridge launched ‘Breaking the Silence’, a centralised campaign to tackle sexual harassment and assault.

The campaign’s launch sparked a spike in reports of sexual misconduct to the University’s anonymous reporting system, which received over 170 submissions between May 2017 and January 2018.

King’s College told Varsity that since the launch of Breaking the Silence they have introduced “training for all tutors on handling disclosures” and “specialist training for the nurse on supporting those who’ve experienced sexual violence”. They also said that in June they will be holding “additional training by the University’s sexual assault and harassment advisor for tutors, porters and the chaplain.”

For Emma, what is most scary is the college’s “let’s not stir anything up approach”.Joe Cook

The University said they encourage students to reach out to the full-time Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor and “report sexual misconduct, where they feel able to do so, to the Office for Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals.”

Yet, this has not been enough. Emma’s experiences with her tutor left her feeling frustrated and unsupported: “To make a formal complaint, you have to know that you’ve got the college completely backing you, and as soon as there’s some doubt then you’re never gonna have the confidence to take it further.”

“Even in college, if you have one person that’s really, really good you cannot have this unequal approach to sexual harassment, I think you have to have a policy.”

“I mean, I was on the fence about making a formal complaint and I would have liked the information and it didn’t even seem like an option...I said I’d been to the nurse and we’d discussed taking it to the senior tutor and making a formal complaint, but my tutor was quite against making one, I would say.”

A spokesperson for King’s College twice declined to comment on if the College has a policy regarding encouraging or discouraging the making of formal complaints.


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Since then, Emma has had to take it into her own hands to feel safe. She no longer goes into certain spaces, talks to certain groups of people or gets involved with certain events, because she knows her harasser will be there.

For Emma, what is most scary is the college’s “let’s not stir anything up approach”.

Other than consent workshops which take place during Freshers’ Week, Emma feels that little else is done to raise awareness about this pervasive behaviour, “I would feel safer if college had spoken more openly about the fact that sexual harassment isn’t tolerated but it is a thing that happens.”

“They have good intentions but I think if someone goes to college about sexual harassment and they keep it hush hush, then that’s why nothing ever gets said about it.”

“It’s quite a dangerous environment because it teaches these boys who have a bit of a confidence boost...they can do whatever they want with no consequences.”


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Talking about the problems with the collegiate system, CUSU Women’s Officer, Claire Sosienski Smith, said there is “often [an] attempt to hush up instances of sexual harassment for fear of reputational damage, institutional misogyny and prioritising the perpetrator of violence over the survivor”.

“Colleges are dangerously small communities when it comes to finding justice for survivors.”

To this day, Emma’s harasser has not faced any consequences.

King’s College refused to comment on whether they would be implementing any changes in light of Emma’s testimony.

However a spokesperson told Varsity, “King’s College takes the issue of sexual harassment very seriously, and we are deeply saddened to learn that one of our students feels that she did not receive proper support. If she feels able, we would welcome a discussion with her on how we can best learn from her experience, and how we can handle this complaint in a way that is fair to all parties.”

*The name of the student has been changed.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources: