Cambridge students wore black on Friday in solidarity with the Time's Up movementGaia Reyes

It has become near impossible to escape mainstream discussions about sexual violence. Those who do the hard work of supporting survivors on a personal and institutional level know that these discussions are not new. Women and non-binary people have always been the recipients of violence we did not ask for and did not deserve. We have always had to negotiate the spaces we enter cleverly for our own safety, to share our stories with one another in secret for fear of blame, to break down experiences of trauma into bite-size chunks in order to prompt the critical self-reflection in our peers that is needed if we are thinking seriously about ending sexual violence. The task of calling the problem to attention, of exposing, of making abuse visible has always fallen to us. It is just that, in this cultural moment, others are beginning to wake up to their complicity in a culture that condones and encourages the violence we experience.

But this particular wave of mainstream attention comes at a time, when, for the first time in its 800-year history, Cambridge has affirmed its commitment to ending all forms of sexual misconduct experienced by staff and students. ‘Breaking the Silence’ is an umbrella term for a raft of new student and staff facing policies and prevention initiatives. It includes the introduction of a new anonymous reporting system, a centralised sexual misconduct procedure that all students can access, a new university ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advocate) who can be accessed through the counselling service, the introduction of a procedure for staff-students relationships as well as training on consent and bystander intervention for staff and students. It even includes a university statement and a video where senior members of the university very earnestly reiterate their commitment to the project.

“Women’s activist work is erased whilst the institution claims credit for the establishment of procedures that should have been in place decades ago”

These changes came about, largely, because of the work of student activists in the Women’s Campaign – who compiled data and collected student experiences of sexual violence in two reports in 2014 and 2015. The reports found that 77% of respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time at university and of that, the majority did not report the incident. The Women’s Campaign called for the introduction of a new, centralised procedure for sexual misconduct that all colleges were obliged to sign up to. Cambridge Speaks Out anonymously collected testimonials from survivors who pointed out that the personalised nature of study at Cambridge left almost no accountability for the violation of boundaries and consent by staff members.

These reports are available on the Women’s Campaign website and more information, including reporting forms and welfare resources, can be found on the Breaking the Silence webpage. The four-year long gap from the completion of those reports and the introduction of Breaking the Silence shows that often, institutions are not capable of making meaningful change on their own. It demonstrates how women’s activist work is erased whilst the institution claims credit for the establishment of procedures that should have been in place decades ago. There are students entering Cambridge who won’t know the long struggle involved in establishing these new procedures; when that institutional memory is lost, so is the impetus to remain critical of the university.

When we say Time’s Up, what exactly do we mean in an institutional context? It is a question worth asking or else we end up witnessing the same superficial conversations that do not demand anything of those who perpetrate sexual violence. We end up with a culture where compulsory disclosure of trauma is encouraged without the support services and access to institutional justice that disclosures like this deserve. The ‘MeToo’ conversation becomes a tool that known abusers can use to gain social capital or to signal that they are ‘on board’.

“When we say Time’s Up, what exactly do we mean in an institutional context?”

To recognise your own complicity in a system of violence or even, at the very least, to be awoken to the fact that sexual harassment and assault happens every day, to your friends, your sister, your mother, at much higher rates than you once thought, should be a profoundly unsettling experience. It should shake you to your core. It is much more than holding a sign, wearing black, posing for a photo. It is about the hard work that follows those shows of solidarity. It is about investigating why you were not attuned to the conversations that were happening or the work being done before this moment. It involves supporting and strengthening existing university initiatives and campaigning, educating yourself on the history of their conception, creating guidance, toolkits and preserving institutional memory. Most importantly, it means starting conversations and examining the behaviour of yourself and your peers in the spaces where women and non-binary people (those who experiences sexual violence at the highest rates) cannot access. As students, we are in a moment where we have a lot of leverage. And rather than symbolic shows of support, we might begin to utilise the existing frameworks that have already served as vehicles for meaningful change. We might stop viewing the work of the liberation campaigns as ‘alienating’, ‘too complex’, ‘fringe’ and instead throw our support behind the campaigning that has been happening right in front of our noses for years. The campaigning that got us to where we are today.


Mountain View

Cambridge students wear black in solidarity with a campaign to end sexual harassment

Instead of attempting to think about sexual violence as this abstract, unmoored phenomenon with no roots, we must inspect the institution we inhabit every single day and ask why it took so long for a centralised policy to be established, why our disciplinary procedure still relies on the criminal burden of proof and why there is only one person providing all the in-house support for survivors at a university wide level. Or why there is no guidance on how colleges should handle cases of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. It also requires originators of Times Up Cambridge to not be so arrogant as to assume that they are initiating a new conversation. There is work to be done here. Work that goes beyond well-meaning gestural politics; work that will not disappear when this conversation does. The Women’s Campaign is continuing to campaign on reform of the archaic disciplinary procedure in the hope that it might instill survivors with the confidence to access it, should they wish to. Get involved. The task of ending sexual violence is a collective one and it is crucial that we start to think beyond what is easy because the struggle for change is long, hard and much less convenient than a photo opportunity