The Lasting Trauma Of Being Raped In My First Term At University

·9-min read

All this week on Refinery29 we are looking at the ongoing problem of sexual assault at UK universities and giving a platform to the students calling for change, once and for all.

Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events, including rape, which some readers might find upsetting.

A few years ago I set off for my first term at the University of Hull. I was uncertain what life would be like in my new home: a city on the east coast of Yorkshire which was five hours away by train from where I grew up. I was excited to meet new people and study a subject I was passionate about but nervous about meeting my new housemates and the others on my course.

I was prepared for (if apprehensive about) nights out and the prospect of all-nighters to get essays finished. What I was not prepared for was to be sexually assaulted by someone in my new group of friends during freshers’ week. Just like that, what was meant to be the most fun and formative three years of my life turned into the most agonising period of my life so far.

In the end I was forced to change university. And here I am, five years, five cycles of therapy and thousands of pounds of additional student debt later, still affected by the trauma of the assault itself as well as the failure of my university to support me when I went to them for help.

The overarching narrative of my story will be familiar to you. It resulted from a cruel mix of the sexist and denigratory behaviours that have been exposed by the university group chat scandals which are reported in the news every so often, and the lack of comprehensive sex and healthy relationship education for young people in this country. The details, however, are specific to me (as they are to all survivors).

I was on a night out. I ran into a male friend. He claimed to be too sober, and the rest of our group thought I was “too drunk”. Since we both wanted to leave, a friend suggested we share a taxi home and asked if he’d make sure I made it to mine alright.. What actually took place was very different. I nodded off in the taxi and he redirected it straight to his halls of residence.

Going to his place wasn’t necessarily cause for alarm. I had been to his halls before for afterparties. Another male friend who also lived there had offered me their bed after another night out. I was close with these guys; I was somewhere familiar and with someone I thought I trusted. I felt safe.

We got out of the taxi and my friend let us into his halls. I felt comfortable stumbling into his flat and eventually sleeping in his single bed. That’s the last thing I remember seeing before going to sleep.

In the morning I woke up and realised where I was. I was again not afraid. I was mostly a bit annoyed that I hadn’t gone straight home because I had a lecture I needed to attend. Annoyed but not alarmed.

I looked down and saw my friend in a sleeping bag on the floor and asked him what had happened. I was still a bit drunk. I then realised I felt a bit achy, clammy and cold between my legs. My friend told me we had slept together.

A recurring theme in his messages was the racist nature of his comments. This ‘friend’ (who was white) had repeatedly said that he wanted to sleep with a Black girl.

When he said those words, I didn’t want what he was saying to be true. I started looking for my jacket and phone in preparation to leave. At some point, while trying to get out, I realised that I didn’t have any underwear on and that some of the buttons on my trousers were undone.

My phone was dead. I needed to check bus times so I asked if I could use his phone. He handed it to me and I saw there was a group chat open. In it I could see he had been talking about the night before.

I asked him not to tell anyone we had slept together. I was confused by what he was alleging – that we’d had sex. I didn’t remember it.

With my phone still dead, I struggled to find the bus stop and instead walked the 40 minutes home, trying to piece together what had gone on the night before from the scraps that I could remember.

In the days that followed, some of my friends said: “Do you think he raped you?” I had just turned 18. I didn’t really know what that meant or what it would look like. What I understood of rape at that time was that it was something perpetrated by a stranger, not a friend. I thought it meant someone putting something in your drink, not necessarily someone taking advantage of the fact I’d consumed alcohol willingly.

Rape was the last word that I would have used at that moment in time. I just didn’t believe it. I struggled to believe we had even had sex. I convinced myself that he was lying, that nothing had happened and this was just a continuation of him saying things for show. The gossip was getting to me though and I asked to see him a few days later in the library to talk.

I don’t know what gave me the courage to do it but pretty quickly I asked him to hand over his phone. I saw more chat results than I had been aware of. How he had been talking about me in the weeks that led up to the eventual assault and how the kindest thing he had to say was “how much he wanted to fuck” me.

A recurring theme in his messages was the racist nature of his comments. This “friend” (who was white) had repeatedly said that he wanted to sleep with a Black girl. It made me feel targeted and the racist comments added an extra element of trauma to the situation.

I also saw a message with pictures of me passed out. These were sent to his friends. I saw another where he went into detail about what happened when we had sex.

Even in that moment, confronted with evidence, I struggled to understand what had happened. I didn’t know what support the university could have offered me. I didn’t know where to turn.

I took some pictures of the text messages on my phone. I asked my “friend” if he thought what he had done was fair. I asked if he would like something like this to happen to his sisters. He said no. The conversation ended there.

After this incident I withdrew from my budding university social life. My mental health began to deteriorate quickly but it wasn’t until the next term that I would do something.

My expectations of finally getting ‘justice’ took a blow when the man who assaulted me did not attend the disciplinary hearing.

By that point I was only socialising with small groups of people, either at my home or in the home of a friend. Via a close friend I met someone who made the connection that we knew some of the same people. We started talking.

“Oh you are the girl ****** says he raped,” my new acquaintance said.

It was so weird to hear myself being talked about like this, particularly because I had never used that term – rape – about the incident myself.

In that moment, I also realised that even six months later, my so-called “friend” couldn’t do the one thing I had asked of him: to stop telling people.

So I decided that if he was still telling people, I would tell the police.

I filed a police report but it ultimately resulted in very little action. They arranged to speak to him about my allegation but he denied it.

I also decided to speak with the student support service, something I wasn’t aware existed when I started my course. Through the service I accessed specialist counselling for the first time. For the most part staff were supportive, but when it came to taking action internally within the university, I was told that I shouldn’t because student misconduct procedures would mean he would know who I was.

I now have more insight into how universities handle the reporting of sexual misconduct and I feel like they didn’t really want it to be their problem. I was discouraged from pursuing a complaint. It is only years later that I realise how detrimental that suggestion was to me.

Ultimately the police report led to little, and a combination of my poor mental health and discomfort on campus after having to sit an exam in the same room as my rapist led to me dropping out and continuing my studies elsewhere.

I continued to reflect on what had happened to me during my first term at Hull. Almost four years to the day after I was assaulted, I got back in touch and asked the university to do something about it. A disciplinary hearing was scheduled.

There is still, rightly, a lot of criticism directed at the policies universities have in place for dealing with sexual assault and how they support their students.

For one, there is no standard set of principles or minimum legal requirements that higher education institutions must meet. This means that individual institutions determine what they want to put in place. So the support available varies by institution and even due to an individual member of staff’s interpretation of events.

My expectations of finally getting “justice” took a blow when the man who assaulted me did not attend the disciplinary hearing. He was no longer enrolled as a student as of the day it took place. Essentially, it was meaningless by that point. Had I not been discouraged from pursuing him at the time, my whole university experience would have been very different.

You can support the Student Survivors Coalition for Safeguarding Policies (SSCSP) in their call for mandatory guidelines as to how universities should investigate and record sexual assault complaints here. They have an email template which you can use to contact your MP.

A spokesperson for the University of Hull said:

“Any behaviour relating to sexual abuse or misconduct is wholly unacceptable and the University of Hull does not condone incidents of this nature. We encourage all our students to report any inappropriate behaviour and we are committed to apply transparent policy and procedures. Indeed, we have been challenging ourselves to focus on sexual violence and harassment policy development, awareness and training across the University. “

“We are committed to helping students receive appropriate support and guidance following reported incidents of sexual assault. The health, safety and well-being of our students is always our primary concern and we are continually working, in partnership with the student body, to refine support services.”

“We have just launched a 24/7 helpline where students can access trained advisers straight away should they need. We also work in partnership with a number of agencies which offer tailored support, such as Blue Door, a specialist service which provides support to anyone who has experienced sexual violence, which is available on campus weekly.”

Our wellbeing team offer a free, confidential and non-judgemental listening and advice service on campus, offering direct support and signposting to additional help.”

The advice from the police is to always report it if you have been the victim of rape or sexual assault, and there are many different ways you can do that. If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind and need help or support, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.

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