When Jo* started her uni degree three years ago, she was “really nervous, but really excited“. By the end of her first year, she was recovering from an ordeal that changed her life.
“I’d always been outgoing and bubbly, and I was part of a large group of friends who’d been kicking around together since junior school. I went to uni expecting to find a similar group of people, and for my uni life to be an extension of my home life, just with the freedom of living away from my parents.
“I’d not been in a really serious relationship before – the longest was seven months – because I was focused on getting good exam grades and pursuing my dreams of being an artist*.
“I didn’t get into halls, because I’d left it too late to sort, so I stayed with a family friend and drove to campus every day. After a couple of weeks, I found an ad for shared student accommodation, checked it out, and moved in as quickly as I could.”
Jo found herself in a busy and noisy house full of students – those that lived there and those that visited. She enjoyed the camaraderie that came from pooling resources for shopping and communal cooking and having someone to hang out with “pretty much whenever I wanted company“. Jo embraced uni life with gusto – she says “it was everything and more than I had hoped“, and she “loved it – I felt I belonged“.
The lead-up to Christmas was crazy. “There was something going on most nights during the last days of the term – parties, SU events, barely any time for studying. And we decided we’d have our own party before heading home for the holiday. Everyone in the house could invite two or three people – we didn’t want the place trashed or stuff stolen – and the party itself was great. No windows broken, no one being sick on the floor, everyone behaved themselves.
“I went to bed around 2am, and pretty much passed out.”
At this point in our chat, Jo’s hands start to shake. Talking about what happened next is asking Jo to relive an experience that has changed her life, and fundamentally changed her.
While Jo was sleeping, she was raped.
“I’m not sure what woke me up – one minute I was asleep, the next I was wide awake, but frozen. I could feel my knickers being pulled to one side, and someone pushing their fingers inside me. Then it wasn’t just his fingers anymore.”
Earlier this year, Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room published a report after 4,500 students from 153 UK institutions responded to a consultation on sexual violence. Shockingly, 62% of students and graduates have experienced groping, harassment, unwanted touching, coercion, sexual assault and rape. 8% of female respondents said they had been raped in university. Only 6% reported their experiences to their university and only 2% felt able to report it and felt satisfied with the reporting process.
Jo is one of the 94% who didn’t report her sexual assault. “I didn’t want anyone to say it was my fault. I mean, we’d had a wild party, I’d had loads to drink and it was my word against his that I didn’t want to have sex. I didn’t think anyone would believe me, because I never called for help or fought back – I couldn’t move while it was happening to me. When he left, I packed my things up and went home. I never came back.”
Christmas was exhausting for Jo, as she tried to act normal for her family’s sake. “In the end it was my sister-in-law who realised something was really wrong: she wouldn’t let it rest, and eventually she wore me down and it all came pouring out. She’s still the only person in my family who knows what happened to me.”
Jo never reported her rape to any authority. She told her university it was a change in personal circumstances that meant she wouldn’t be returning, making her part of the 16% of students who suspend studies or drop out of university as a result of sexual violence.
Jo is still single, almost three years later, and she is understandably angry that “the experience ruined [her] life”.
“I don’t want to be an artist anymore, my ambition and my creativity have gone. I still live at home with my parents, and I work in a little shop in our town. I don’t want to travel, I don’t want to be in a relationship and I certainly don’t want to have sex.”
I ask Jo if there is anything she wants to share with other victims.
She’s emphatic – yes. “Tell someone, anyone, and get support. You’re going to need it, no matter how tough and independent you think you are.”
Revolt Sexual Assault’s study revealed that 56% of students believed their experience “wasn’t serious enough” to be reported. Any experience should be reported.
Jo adds: “I didn’t say no, but I didn’t say yes. That’s rape by anyone’s standards. I’m realistic – reporting it wouldn’t have changed the path my life has taken – but maybe I wouldn’t still be suffering.”
If you, or anyone you know, has been a victim of sexual violence, contact your student union or visit Rape Crisis and get the support you need.
Rape Crisis: Call free on 0808 802 9999, 12 noon-2.30pm and 7pm-9.30pm, every day of the year.
*names and some details have been changed to guarantee anonymity.