TW: Sexual Violence
Since 18th March 2021, students at the University of Warwick have occupied the Piazza, at the centre of the campus, demanding change in the way that the institution deals with sexual violence. At the time of writing, they have been in occupation in the cold and wet, for just over a week. Arranged via Instagram by a group calling themselves ‘Protect Warwick Women’, the occupation is the latest in a series of student-led protests that have been occurring at the university since the ‘Group Chat Scandal’ first arose in 2018. I write this as a letter of solidarity, not only with those students occupying the Piazza but with all student victim-survivors who have been undermined and disbelieved by their institutional ‘home’. They deserve more.
The persistence of sexual violence within the university context has gained sizeable attention in recent years. This attention is often critical. Indeed, it focuses largely on the ways in which institutions are not adequately dealing with the sheer amount of sexual violence occurring at the hands of their students and often on their campuses. This criticism has come from numerous voices. It has come from the media who are often unrelenting in their assertions that institutions provide ‘a duty of care for sexists’, leaving women ‘terrified’ for their safety. It has come from people within institutions, usually taking the form of feminist killjoys (Ahmed, 2017) who find themselves persistently enraged by the extent to which institutions are enabling their students to experience such violence. But perhaps most powerfully, it has come from students at every turn. This occupation at Warwick is therefore a crucial escalation of the movement to end the prevalence of sexual violence on campus. Their message remains the same with each surge and outpouring of rage: We deserve more. We deserve to feel safe. We deserve to feel protected.
In 2018, I started my PhD on student attitudes towards sexual violence within elite institutions in the UK, particularly focusing on the so-called ‘Russell Group’ Universities. In the last decade alone, there have been a raft of significant events: from the 2014 banning of the LSE Men’s Rugby Team through to incoming Freshers at Durham University having their offers revoked after the revelation of misogynistic, homophobic behaviours online. Similarly, research concerned with sexual violence within universities has indicated a link between sexist, misogynistic behaviours thought to perpetuate violence and particular demographics more prominent among these student populations (Phipps, 2016).
My research has collected the testimony of over 500 students across multiple institutions. I’ve had numerous difficult conversations with student victim survivors, hearing accounts of extreme sexual violence and intense institutional reticence. Watching the events at Warwick unfold over the last week, I have been struck by the similarities between the collective demands of the protestors and the individual voices of the students that I have engaged with. Like the protestors’ demands, 71% of students that I have spoken to felt strongly that their university has a duty to investigate incidents of unacceptable behaviour that happens on campus. 81% of these students felt strongly that their university has a duty to take steps towards preventing unacceptable behaviour on campus. And 84% of students felt strongly that their university has a duty to protect its students from unacceptable behaviour on campus. Students think that Universities should institutionally take preventative measures and they should investigate sexual violence.
At the end of my conversations with victim-survivors, I always asked what they would like an institution to do when dealing with sexual violence. The response of two female students seems particularly apposite in light of the Warwick Occupation. One insisted that Universities must:
‘Believe whoever comes to you – just believe that person because the worst thing to be told is that it was your fault. How can a victim of rape be told that it was their fault? I don’t get that.’(Female Student)
The other student explained that:
‘It’s having that community of support so that it doesn’t define your university experience if it does happen. And almost emphasising that this shouldn’t be a part of university. It shouldn’t. I think they really need to remember that. It’s almost just kind of accepted that oh it happens. But they need to do more, so it doesn’t happen.’(Female Student)
These victim-survivors’ responses are incredibly important to understand. They are harrowing because the utopian hope that they express are so simple, so obvious. They are so simple that it makes you wonder how institutions could be getting their responses so wrong.
These feelings of confusion, dismay and anger, have resurfaced over the past few days as the events at the University of Warwick have unfolded. Once again, I found myself struck by the extent to which institutions appear so far removed from the reality that students feel compelled to occupy a space in protest. These students have made it clear that they won’t move until their demands are met.
I write this letter not only in solidarity with those in occupation. I write it to give voice to the hundreds of student victim-survivors that I have spoken to, and to let their demands echo with the voices of dissent of the ‘Protect Warwick Women’. I write this letter of solidarity, with a small and naïve dose of optimism that in this moment, we may move one step closer to institutional accountability, responsibility and change.
*Alice King is a PhD student at Warwick Law School. Thanks to the students who shared their stories with me and to Sahar Shah for pushing me to write the piece
 Disclaimer: the data discussed here is taken from an article in progress and based upon data collected during the course of the PhD.