I used to regularly go into schools to teach consent workshops to teenagers aged between around 13 and 16, which included showing the students a video made by Thames Valley Police called Tea and Consent. I’ve seen this video so many times I can almost recite it by heart. It begins with this line: “If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine that instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea…”
The video gently compares the act of making tea to the act of sex, appealing to the viewer’s common sense understanding of social niceties. Making someone a cup of tea is generous, right? But as a well socialised person, you’ll know that if someone says no to your offer of tea, you shouldn’t force it upon them, or get angry because they refused you. And you certainly shouldn’t pour tea down an unconscious person’s throat.
Although I don’t think my efforts in the workshops were entirely wasted, I also doubt they made much – if any –difference to rates of sexual violence within the schools. Consent workshops can potentially achieve two things: they can teach participants (including potential victims) what is and is not illegal, and they can offer schools the opportunity to declare a zero-tolerance attitude towards any kind of sexual misbehaviour. If, for instance, a student is caught sharing revenge porn after taking part in an official consent workshop, he or she can’t plausibly claim they did not know this act is both illegal and punishable by expulsion.
But many fans of consent workshops seem to believe their chief purpose is to do something fairly miraculous: to appeal to students’ empathy and common sense, thus dissuading potential rapists or, as the tea video phrases it, people “still struggling with consent” from acting on their desires. This hopeful project relies on the idea that the whole business of sexual violence is really just a consequence of some misunderstanding, swiftly cleared up during a 45-minute workshop in which children are told not to rape one another.
Forgive my cynicism, but I don’t think this workshop strategy is going to work. I find it odd that liberal feminist media outlets such as Teen Vogue will wax lyrical about the importance of consent education in schools, while also telling young readers it’s OK to watch porn that “portrays fantasies about non-consensual sex”. It is recklessly inconsistent to suggest, on the one hand, that consent workshops can have a profound effect on teenagers’ behaviour, while also insisting that exposing their young brains to porn depicting rape or other violence (even if only simulated) is nothing to worry about.
The arrival of the internet has changed both the quantity and quality of the porn that’s available. In a 2020 survey of men across several western European countries, respondents reported watching an average of 70 minutes of online porn a week – with 2.2 per cent watching more than seven hours. Within the last decade or so, BDSM content, particularly that featuring strangulation, has migrated from niche porn sites to mainstream porn sites and now to social media, including to platforms that advertise themselves as suitable for children aged 13 and over. You do not have to look hard to find these images. If you are exposed to mainstream porn or even just to mainstream social media, you are very likely to come across them unintentionally.
How on Earth is a consent workshop supposed to compete with the vast dopamine feedback loop offered by the online porn industry? Gail Dines, an academic specialising in violence against women, is one of the most pessimistic voices on this issue, and she describes the problem with painful clarity: “The pornographers are laying waste a whole generation of boys, and when you lay waste a generation of boys, you lay waste a generation of girls.”
Students staging a sit-in protest at Warwick University have spent more than two weeks living in a tent in the middle of campus to highlight what they describe as a “huge culture of fear” around sexual abuse and the university’s failure to support victims.
Three years after the university’s “rape chat” scandal, in which a number of male students exchanged violent sexual comments about female students, the protesters say women still do not feel safe on campus or confident reporting incidents to staff.
“The university say they have been trying to improve things over the past few years but students are still here protesting the exact same thing, with the exact same demands,” said Cai Kennedy, a first-year theatre student who helped launch the sit-in with a rally attended by about 350 students.
“We were very wary about the fact the uni hasn’t listened in the past, which is why I proposed the sit-in because we wanted to do something they can’t ignore.”
The protesters, a group named Protect Warwick Women, have presented the university with a list of demands, including sexual violence and consent training for staff and security, more signposting to 24/7 safe spaces on campus, the permanent banning of abusers from campus and increased funding for wellbeing services.
They also want the option of immediate pastoral care in the event of a sexual assault, as opposed to a security response, as they say students are deterred from coming forward for fear of punishment if they have been involved in a breach of Covid rules, for instance.
The university said it “welcomed the ideas put forward” and “there are many areas where we are in broad agreement and where improvements are already in progress or implemented”. However, the students have vowed to continue the sit-in until they receive written confirmation their demands will be implemented.
In recent weeks, thousands of students have shared testimonies of sexual harassment and assault at UK schools and universities since the death of Sarah Everard in March triggered a national conversation about women’s safety.
This week a member of Oxford University’s women’s boat club said she had been failed by the institution’s handling of her rape allegation, and universities across the country are coming under increasing pressure to take more action to tackle sexual abuse on campus.
Suddenly everyone is talking about a “rape culture” in schools. Not for the first time, it has to be said, but influential MPs, headteachers and senior police officers are urging anyone who has been attacked to report their experiences. “Every victim who comes forward will be believed, will be listened to and dealt with sensitively,” according to Simon Bailey, the national police lead for child protection. Really?
I don’t doubt that “rape culture” exists within schools, or that some headteachers have been reluctant to confront it. At meetings of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, we have heard anecdotal evidence about schools where girls wear shorts under uniform skirts to protect themselves from sexual assault. But there is nothing unique about what happens in educational settings. It reflects what is happening in the wider world, where the stark fact is that very few sexual predators face any form of justice.
Official figures tell the story: on average, about 1,060 women report a rape to the police in England and Wales each week. Only 40 of those rapes will lead to a prosecution, and about 27 will end in a conviction. More than 1,000 men a week are getting away with rape, in other words, and that’s only the cases known to the police. Many more go unreported, never featuring in the statistics.
When public figures urge girls to report rape, they should be honest about the fact that they are directing victims into a completely broken system; rape has all but been decriminalised, encouraging a culture of impunity among perpetrators. Hardly any rapists end up in prison, so what do they have to fear?
The government is poised to publish the latest in a long line of reviews of what’s gone wrong with rape investigations, but I could have saved it the trouble. Rape and serious sexual assault are the only crimes where it is victims, not the likely perpetrators, who are treated with suspicion. When a rape inquiry opens, police focus on complainants, making incredibly intrusive inquiries into their previous history. Girls who may now be thinking of going to the police need to know they will probably be asked to hand over their mobile phones, even if they contain intimate photos and messages, and to provide access to school and medical records.
Cases often collapse as a result: say a girl accuses boy X of rape, and detectives find a jokey text message from three months ago telling a friend she fancies X. Understanding of consent is so poor that it will be treated as undermining the credibility of her complaint, even though we are all entitled to change our minds about whether to have sex with someone, especially if the other party is rough or threatening.
There are now more than 8,000 posts on the Everyone’s Invited website, but it does not seem likely that they will change this atmosphere of corrosive distrust towards victims. Bailey’s statement that girls who come forward will be believed is hard to square with pronouncements from the country’s most senior police officer, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, who in 2018 reversed her force’s policy of believing individuals who report rape.
It was national policy at the time, adopted in 2011 after an outcry over the impunity Jimmy Savile enjoyed in his lifetime. But then the Metropolitan police were severely criticised over the way they handled Operation Midland, the disastrous inquiry into a nonexistent paedophile ring at Westminster. The complainant was a male fantasist, quite unlike most rape victims, and he subsequently went to prison for perverting the course of justice.
Dick’s kneejerk response was to tell her officers to have an “open mind” when they hear a rape allegation. She also made remarks that don’t bode well for girls weighing up whether to report attacks at school: “Speaking as a cop, opposed to a citizen, I’m interested in crime. If it’s a long time ago, or it’s very trivial, or I’m not likely to get a criminal justice outcome, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it.”
Some may be the type of case that the police and prosecutors find most challenging, where the accuser and alleged perpetrator are known to each other, and may have consumed alcohol before the attack. I don’t doubt that the assurances now being offered are sincere, but the risk of creating unrealistic expectations is very high.
We live in a society where half the population faces an ever-present threat of sexual harassment and assault at school, at work and in our own homes. But the criminal justice system is so intent on protecting the interests of men and boys accused of rape, it no longer does its basic job of providing justice for victims.
Students at private schools have said allegations of sexual abuse by fellow pupils have been ignored because staff wish to protect the reputation of the school – and the income associated with its prestige.
One girl, who says she was raped by a boy at school, said her teachers handed her allegation to the police before “washing their hands of it to protect their image”.
The debate about how our schools are run has escalated recently after a website was set up for victims to post anonymous accounts of abuse they had suffered. There are even calls for a public inquiry.
The number of allegations made by pupils on the Everyone’s Invited website now number in their thousands, with children as young as nine posting testimonies claiming assault, harassment and rape.
Many of the claims are made by young women about the young men who are at school or college or university with them, or part of the same social groups.
Speaking anonymously, an 18-year-old girl told the BBC she was raped by a boy who was “one of the brightest students” at her school, the name of which she did not disclose.
“So therefore it was his needs above mine, they didn’t want him to be removed,” she said. “They didn’t want him to have his prefect badge taken away because it would affect his future.
“And they want to be able to say, oh, yeah, we taught this child and they were so bright, so they didn’t do anything. He didn’t get any sanctions. They just didn’t want to get in his way.
“I’ve been on anti-depressants for a year and almost went on anti-anxiety tablets to help with my sleeping because obviously that’s been affected”.
The girl’s mother believes “there was a fear of what other people, families, parents might think.
“And if you think about a private school, they need people to be coming to pay their bills. They need the next intake,” she said.
“And if they are embroiled in a scandal, that’s going to have an impact on them”.
Highgate School in north London is among the private schools caught up in the claims.
A former student of the school says when she took her claims to staff, she was ignored: “A friend raped me at a party in Year 13 [upper sixth].
“I reported the rape to the school eight days afterwards – and so began their massive failure to support me.
“In a meeting with my parents, a senior member of staff said ‘alcohol was involved’, suggesting that this made my situation less legitimate.
“I was told that it was merely my word against his.”
BBC Newsnight has seen a several-page dossier containing hundreds of testimonies saying similar things.
The school said it is launching an “immediate external review of the sexual abuse and harassment allegations” and is “working on an anti-sexism plan”.
Private schools partly rely on private financing through their fees – some of those listed on the Everyone’s Invited website charge more than £20,000 a year.
Students from these schools often go to the best universities, so the fees are seen as a good investment and a guarantee of a good education.
But there are calls for less focus on academia and more focus on behaviour and attitudes.
Sir Anthony Seldon, the former head of the independent Wellington College, called the emerging scandal “a horror”.
“We need to have a revitalised education system that really does the best for every child… instead of just giving them all the educational advantages but also the development of their holistic character, their creativity, their ability to be able to perform well in work and in society, knowing how to manage their mental health.
“I mean, goodness, school is about so much more than just tests and exams”.
The Department for Education has reiterated it is working with the police to provide support and protection to those reporting abuse.
The alleged victims are hoping that shining a very public light onto their claims can lead to change – but some fear when that spotlight is switched off, these changing attitudes could fade.
One of the country’s most senior police officers has said he believes that schools have covered up sexual offences to protect their reputations as a task force took charge of the surge in abuse complaints.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey told The Times that the outpouring of allegations was the education sector’s “MeToo” moment and that he feared a “culture of misogyny and sexual harassment” had not been challenged in some schools.
Bailey is the lead officer for Operation Hydrant, the national task force for child sexual abuse investigations in institutions. It will assess allegations of abuse in schools before they are given to individual forces to investigate, with a national hotline for abuse reports to be set up within 72 hours.
His comments come after thousands of anonymous testimonies of abuse in schools from students and alumni were shared on the Everyone’s Invited website. Police are working with the Department for Education, Home Office and Department of Health, and are prepared to investigate historical complaints as well as reports from witnesses to abuse on others.
Detectives will model their approach on the national football child abuse scandal, where police received more than 2,000 referrals involving more than 330 clubs. It resulted in the conviction of the former youth football coach Barry Bennell. Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for child protection, said that he expected forces across the country to be involved.
“If somebody has been privy to rape or serious sexual assault then we want to hear from them,” he said. “What I fear is that there will be a number of sexual predators that will have moved from secondary school to university where they will continue to offend.”
Asked whether some schools had have covered up reports to protect their reputation, Bailey said he did not yet have evidence of that but added: “Am I naive enough to think that hasn’t happened? Of course I’m not. Do I think there will be circumstances where abuse will have been covered up to protect reputations? Yes I do.”
Magdalen, a leading private school for boys with a mixed sixth form, immediately contacted the Oxfordshire safeguarding team upon finding out about the allegations just over two weeks ago, Pike said.
“I was hoping that whoever it is [that had posted the testimonies] had spoken to us and was OK, it’s particularly challenging because they were anonymous and I was really worried that young people were taking to Instagram, when I would hope that they would seek professional support,” she told Today on BBC Radio 4 this morning.
“The influences of alcohol and pornography and expectations around what sex is are really challenging. Questions of consent for children are really challenging for us.”
Pike, the first female head of Magdalen, said she is “relieved” that Bailey does not have evidence that schools have covered up reports of abuse to protect their reputations.
She added that Magdalen tries to foster a culture of respect, boundaries and sensible decision-making in its pupils from the age of seven. In a virtual assembly this month she told pupils to ask their mothers and sisters about the sexual harassment they have suffered.
The Department for Education is prepared to close schools if they fail to meet safeguarding standards. A source in the department said: “If it becomes clear that there are current failings in any school’s safeguarding practice, we will immediately ask Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate to conduct an inspection. If a school is found to not be meeting the required safeguarding standard, we will make sure it either improves or closes.”
The focus has so far been on the private sector, but Bailey said that he expected to receive reports from state schools. “This goes right across the whole of the education section . . . and I think it is the next big national child sexual abuse scandal,” he said “It’s the ‘MeToo’ movement for schools. We are dealing with the tip of the iceberg.”
Speaking to Today on BBC Radio 4, Bailey expanded on this. He said: “What I am anticipating is that as there is greater focus on this issue we will start to see reports of abuse, of current abuse, of non-recent abuse in the university sector, in the state sector, in the private sector as well. This is not something that is exclusive only to the private schools.
“The website has already received . . . over 7,000 testimonies. And those numbers are growing exponentially on Everyone’s Invited. So I think it’s reasonable to predict that there is going to be a significant number of reports that are going to come into the system.”
He said that victims would be believed when they came forward but that the police would then investigate without fear or favour.
Nearly 100 private schools and 75 state schools have been named on the Everyone’s Invited website, analysis of 1,000 testimonies by The Times found. There are significantly more submissions relating to private schools.
Detective Superintendent Mel Laremore, the Met’s lead for rape and sexual offences, said on Saturday that the issue was not limited to private schools.
Scotland Yard said it had reviewed the website and had received reports of offences of misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault.
Bailey warned that it was the responsibility of parents and guardians, as well as teachers, to ensure that young men and women understood what healthy relationships are.
“I think there is a culture that has to be challenged where young men are viewing pornography, are seeing the sexualisation of women and as a result of that healthy relationships are not truly understood,” he said.
“It has to be the responsibility of parents and guardians and teachers to ensure that young men and young women understand what healthy relationships are. We have got to start challenging this culture now.”
He said that schools were responsible for setting the right tone: “If sexual harassment and misogyny and sexual abuse are not tolerated, it can’t take root and it doesn’t then become part of the school’s culture. If the school does not challenge this behaviour then pupils know it is acceptable.”
Hundreds of students at the Sciences Po university and the network of ten affiliated schools have unleashed a torrent of rape and sexual abuse allegations against France’s top educational establishment.
The Institute of Political Studies, its official name, has for decades trained the cream of politicians, mandarins and the media elite. It was already caught up in a storm after abuse allegations against Olivier Duhamel, head of its governing board.
Under the #sciencesporcs — science pigs — hashtag started by Anna Toumazou, a feminist campaigner, the students allege that abuse is endemic and colleagues and staff are unwilling to take their complaints seriously.
The directors of several of the provincial establishments, including those in Strasbourg, Toulouse and Bordeaux, said this week that they had forwarded complaints to local prosecutors.
Juliette, a second-year student in Toulouse, said: “These words are hard to say, almost impossible to write . . . I was raped.” She said that no one had listened to her in 2018 but she reported the matter to police last week.
In Aix-en-Provence, Louise, a student, said that she reported being raped by a student in 2019 but a university inquiry rejected her claims and told her to attend classes on the nature of consent.
In Bordeaux, the Sciences-Po school has set up a unit to receive complaints from women students who say they were victims of sexual assault and rape.
Duhamel, 70, a powerful intellectual and informal adviser to President Macron, resigned all his posts last month after Camille Kouchner, his step-daughter, accused him in a book of sexually abusing her twin brother when he was a teenager.
Duhamel has made no denial and is under investigation by prosecutors.
Frédéric Mion, 51, the Sciences-Po director since 2013, resigned this week after admitting that he was aware of the allegations against Duhamel since 2018 but failed to act. A report by state investigators found senior figures at the institute knew of the claims as did the tightknit world of Paris intellectuals, artists and politicians whom Kouchner accused in her book of covering up her stepfather’s alleged crimes.
The inspectors’ report, leaked yesterday, has turned up the pressure on Marc Guillaume, the prefect, or state governor, of Paris and its region. Guillaume resigned as a member of the Sciences-Po board after acknowledging he had also been aware of the Duhamel affair.
The government called in the heads and demanded action after the latest disclosures. “It is time that this omerta is lifted,” Élisabeth Moreno, minister for equality, said after the meeting. Police have opened inquiries in Toulouse, Bordeaux and other campuses.
Prosecutors yesterday charged another Sciences-Po graduate, Dominique Boutonnat, 50, head of the National Centre for the Cinema, with the attempted rape of his godson, 22.
Macron and four of the six French presidents who preceded him have been graduates of Sciences-Po.
When Adam Lazarus complained about a seven-year-old boy putting his hands on his daughter at school, he was told not to cry sexual assault. “They don’t think like that,” the teachers said, “not at that age.” “But it’s power,” Lazarus seethes, recounting the incident. “It’s gendered power, and if you excuse it this kid thinks it’s OK.”
The Canadian performer made waves at the Edinburgh festival in 2018 with his controversial, gut-punch solo Daughter, which he is now bringing to Battersea Arts Centre in London. The show is told from the perspective of a young girl’s father and what starts as a charming and funny quasi-standup set quickly turns into something acidic. Over the course of an increasingly intense hour, Lazarus – dressed in fairy wings, dancing adorably to his daughter’s favourite song – unspools a brutal thread of toxic masculinity. First it’s shrugged off as a joke, then a distasteful comment, until suddenly there’s a metal rod in his hand and we’re wondering how we got here. “Are you OK that I did that?” he asks in the show, as remnants of laughter start to taste like bile.
Having trained at Philippe Gaulier’s prestigious clown school in France, Lazarus makes work that stems from bouffon, the French style of theatre with its roots in mockery. In contrast to his past performances, which involved elaborate costume and character, the father in Daughter is almost indistinguishable from Lazarus himself, and it leaves you wondering how much is true. “We had to ride the line [between reality and fiction] to be sure you couldn’t dismiss him as a character,” he says. “We were trying to get to a point where the room would say, I get it, I understand how a person could think like that.”
With his co-creators Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, Lazarus began developing Daughter after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. “It blew the minds of Canadians, because we listened to him every morning,” explains Lazarus. Ghomeshi was acquitted in 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants.
Daughter is built from real stories, though only some are from Lazarus’s own life. Regardless, audiences frequently believe it’s all him and that it’s all true. In the Edinburgh performances, some people walked out, while lots of others refused to applaud. But silence is not the worst response Lazarus has had; people frequently ask his wife if she’s OK, some close friends believe the stories are his own, and one man threatened to kill him for suggesting men had such a violent streak.
The hardest responses to reconcile are from the people – primarily women – who have been hurt by the performance. “I don’t think everyone needs to see the show,” Lazarus says frankly, when I ask about those who reported crying in the toilets afterwards, wishing they hadn’t seen it. “The show picks at a scab and if you have a trauma or a trigger that’s in there, it’s gonna peel really bad. I don’t know how to prepare people for that.” After every performance the company hold a space to talk, led by producer Aislinn Rose. Lazarus doesn’t attend those sessions; audiences feel more comfortable without him.
Lazarus argues that Daughter is a feminist play. “Pre-Trump I think it was a warning. Now I think it’s a rallying cry.” The show, Lazarus freely admits, is an attack on men, and the behaviour we often excuse. “It seethes underneath everything. These are microaggressions everyone is part of. The ‘good guys’ have a lot of work to do.” He does the quotation marks in the air.
With thunderous impact, Daughter toys with these complex ideas of responsibility and consent, asking how we protect our daughters by talking to our sons. Lazarus’s daughter is now eight, his son five. Scared and hopeful for them both in equal measure, he paraphrases a recent article by Peggy Orenstein. “We have to talk to our sons about sex in the same way we talk about manners: often. Even if you feel like you wanna poke your eye out talking to your son [about sex], if you don’t teach them, porn will.”
Crimes have a tendency to become not just stories but genres, once we get too accustomed to them. As more and more stories of sexual assault have been made public in the last two years, the genre of their telling has exploded. One thing we often do with narratives of sexual assault is sort their respective parties into different temporalities: it seems we are interested in perpetrators’ futures and victims’ pasts. Whatever questions society has about the perpetrators tend to concern their next steps: Will they go to prison? What of their careers? Questions asked about the victims—even at their most charitable (when we aren’t asking, “What was she wearing?”)—seem to focus on the past, sometimes in pursuit of understanding, sometimes in pursuit of certainty and corroboration and painful details.
One result is that we don’t have much of a vocabulary for what happens in a victim’s life after the painful past has been excavated, even when our shared language gestures toward the future, as the term “survivor” does. The victim’s trauma after assault rarely gets the attention that we lavish on the moment of damage that divided the survivor from a less encumbered past. One of the things that Margaret Atwood accomplishes in The Testaments – which recently won the Booker Prize (shared with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) – is enlarging our perspective by focusing on the aftermath of assault. This engaging sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale tempers the first novel’s grim vision by supplying a parallel text that reveals one of its villains, Aunt Lydia, to have been a rebel in waiting.
The Handmaid’s Tail describes its fictional dystopia, Gilead, as a male theocracy with almost perfect powers of surveillance over its female subjects. What The Testaments proves – reassuringly – is that Gilead’s hegemony was not just incomplete but flawed from its inception: someone was always in fact keeping an eye on the Eye. The horror of the Handmaids’ suffering, which in The Handmaid’s Tale was somehow both sanctioned and ignored, is somewhat mitigated by the revelation that it was always being witnessed: strict records of abuses were being compiled. The Testaments is a text that believes, quite strongly, that dossiers showing wrongdoing by the power brokers matter. Its premise is that if the truth is recorded, exposed, and circulated, consequences will be meted out and power will crumble.
This strikes me as an anemic optimism. If Me Too (not to mention impeachment) has taught us anything, it is that testimony does not dislodge power. We careen from outrage to outrage in a rollicking attention-deficit economy that most perpetrators are able to outwait or outshout. And even when they don’t, no one can agree on how revelations about past abuse should affect the offender’s long-term treatment. Soon enough, they return, and rarely are they much resisted. Jeffrey Epstein was entertained by powerful men after his 2008 conviction for “procuring an underage girl for prostitution” and soliciting a prostitute.
Me Too has altered such calculations by amplifying the survivors’ claims, but even now, after the public disgracing of Harvey Weinstein and humiliation of Epstein, the embarrassed professions of regret from Epstein’s powerful associates feel partial and crabbed. Weinstein was recently out at a downtown comedy club. Many of Epstein’s allies resent that their conduct is up for public discussion at all. As for dossiers knocking down corrupt institutions, well, to take one recent example, Ronan Farrow has alleged that NBC withheld the Weinstein story because Weinstein was threatening to expose similar allegations against one of the network’s own stars, Matt Lauer. Rather than expose both abusers, it kept them both safe. We know all this now, and yet no power structures have toppled. The men who decided to protect Weinstein and Lauer still have their jobs and their influence. Several of Weinstein’s accusers are on the brink of signing a settlement in which he will not have to admit fault or pay a dime himself.
Testimony did not seem to bring a revolution. Yet there is something liberating about this: if the legal system is unresponsive, and power is not collapsing, then why should testimonies be restricted to the formats that the law or journalistic standards require? What little public understanding there is of a survivor’s experience labors under a heap of clichés. The expectations we have for how people should act immediately after being attacked are as strict as they are implausible (she should be beside herself, ideally sobbing, and go to the ER at once to get a rape kit done, and deliver a perfect statement to the police while registering suitable pain and panic).
This is why Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, in which she recounts the experience of waking up to medical personnel and police after being raped while unconscious, is as educational as it is literary. In describing the confusion of reaching back to pluck a pine needle out of her hair and being gently told she can’t, because it’s evidence; of reaching for her underwear and not finding it, and blocking out what that means; of not knowing what happened and realizing that no one quite does—in finding a language for bewilderments that few people have put into words—her testimony is crucial. So is her description of what happened after. Our models for the aftermath of a survivor’s journey usually include revenge, despair, or the fantasy that exposing the truth will provide a just outcome. Miller’s account offers no such catharsis or closure; she describes a jumble of conflicting mental states that proceed along parallel tracks and do not resolve.
The first time Shivangi Choubey missed the curfew at her student hostel was a night in late September. It was not the only rule she broke that day.
Women students at Banaras Hindu University are not supposed to protest. Many are made to sign a contract that spells this out explicitly. Men are not required to sign anything of the kind.
Nor, at many hostels on campus, are women served meat, permitted to speak on the phone after 10pm, or allowed out in the evenings when their male counterparts still roam the tree-lined campus on sputtering two-wheelers or cram into the library to study.
So it was especially shocking – and unprecedented in the university’s 100-year history – when Choubey led 200 women through the gates of their college to join hundreds of others assembled outside Lanka gate, the campus’s bustling entrance. “Nobody ever misses a curfew,” she says, pulling a scarlet shawl around her shoulders. “That’s something very big for us. But we were so agitated, because these things keep happening to us.”
The day before, an undergraduate student walking home from her department said she had been sexually assaulted by two men on a motorbike. Campus security guards had been sitting in plastic chairs about 20 metres away but did nothing, the woman said. She told others that the warden at her college had dismissed the incident, telling her: “They just touched you. They didn’t do anything serious.”
“These comments were a spark on already burning logs,” says Dhriti Dharana, a psychology student living at the same college as the alleged victim. “We thought, to hell with everything. We’re going to protest.”
The days of demonstrations that followed have brought one of India’s most prestigious and conservative universities to its knees. Its vice-chancellor is on indefinite leave. The head of security resigned. Colleges were emptied of students – “evacuated”, one said – days earlier than a scheduled holiday after footage of police using batons against young women went viral, drawing national condemnation.