CW: sexual harrassment / sexual assault
A note from your online editor:
This article highlights the sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault faced by women at university. I want to stress how hard it can be to share these memories, and how it takes a vast amount of bravery to do so. They can bring back emotions of trauma and anger, and I hugely appreciate being entrusted with these stories, which in some cases hadn’t been shared before.
Despite the courage and resilience these women have shown, the cases too often include emotions which should instead have been felt by the perpetrator. Guilt and shame are too often burdens which lie on the wrong side. The fact that certain details in some stories have needed to be changed, due to potential consequences if the identity of the woman were discovered, highlights how victim blaming and misunderstanding around the epidemic is still commonplace. I hope that scandals such as that of Harvey Weinstein can help highlight the drastic and far-reaching scale of the problem, and reverse this culture. The cases that are revealed demonstrate that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you wear, where you’re from or what you believe in; you can still experience sexism, harassment and assault.
These stories reflect experiences at LSE, but they should be placed in a context of a long history of similar events, often starting from a young age. My first memorable experience of sexual harassment was age 11, wearing my school uniform in Tesco. A middle-aged man walked past and slapped me hard on the bum. At the time, I felt confused and powerless, and I didn’t want to tell people, scared they would say that I shouldn’t have rolled my skirt up above my knee. That was the first of a series of uncountable events; cat calls, sickening hand gestures, groping, slaps, and feeling pressurized, and these have only increased in volume since being at university. But sadly I still count myself as fortunate to not have been affected worse, as others have. I acknowledge that myself, and many at LSE, talk from a point of privilege, and that it can be much harder to share or deal with experiences when not in this position.
Although, of course, it is not all men that should be accused, and not solely women who are victims, it is in a way all women who are affected. Despite this, we are told that “sexism doesn’t exist in the UK anymore”, or to focus on “real problems”. It is unfortunate that in order to shine light on the issue, the onus has fallen on women to have to relive their accounts, and to highlight publicly something entrenched in our daily lives. But in doing so, it has uncovered solidarity, ingenuity and sheer strength, leading to a will to fight the problem, which is reason to be hopeful.
“In first year, sitting in my room while listening to the boys outside sexually demean my friends, commenting on the size of the girl’s body parts, and what they would do to them. Had to leave because I didn’t feel safe in my own room anymore.”
“I offered to let a boy I had met recently to stay round, as his place was a while away (and our friends had hooked up so he would have had to go home alone). He took up the offer. He tried to kiss me but I said that I just wanted to go to sleep. He then got on top of me and said ‘you know you want this’. I kept telling him to get off of me, but he kept crawling back on top. I had to force him off of me multiple times (and threaten to scream) before he eventually got up and left.”
“OK so literally Wednesday zoo in smoking area. FC lad went to walk past me, I had my back to him and was talking to people and felt his hand literally grope my ass and vagina. He squeezed and I turned around and was like what are you doing? And he shouted in my face “I’m just trying to get past you”.”
“Once I went to Oxford and went on a night out with my friends. I got too fucked and I lost them in the club and just started dancing on my own, feeling safe in my environment because I had no reason to feel otherwise. A guy came up to me and started dancing with me and putting his arms around me and at first I was amused but then he put one hand on the back of my neck and the other on my back and shoved his tongue down my throat. I was so startled I couldn’t react for a few seconds, then I began to push him away but because of the way he was holding me and his weight and height advantage it wasn’t doing much. I was rescued by a male friend who spotted my struggle and took me outside, and it disgusted me that my (lack of) consent was not important but as soon as my friend came up I was let go.”
“I don’t know where to start, honestly. There’ll probably be things I’ll forget to mention, or things I’ve forgotten entirely. My most vivid experience was being groped, just walking down the street. I was with my little sister, which makes me sick. She and her friends were probably 12, I think I was about 16/7. I remember it being really dark. I was walking down the street just close to my house, and they were with me, and this middle aged man with two of his mates just passed me and put his hand around my arse and squeezed it. It was so disgustingly intrusive, I feel horrible thinking about it. I can still feel his fingers on my skin. I was so shocked, I turned to him and told him to never fucking touch me again. I think he chuckled and carried on, I remember him not being the slightest bit bothered, and I was angry that I couldn’t make him care. I wonder what he’d have done if someone did that to his sister, mother, daughter. I would say girlfriend, but I hope for her sake he doesn’t have one.
That was the most poignant, but its happened in clubs too. It becomes something you expect, but it doesn’t make it any less horrible. Its so sickening, it makes me want to shout and cry at the same time. I remember being followed home from a club, in the early hours of the morning , when I ended up alone. I had no phone and no idea where I was, and I was freezing and fucking terrified. A group of guys started shouting at me, asking where my boyfriend was. They followed me for a good few streets, still trying to talk to me, and I really thought I was done for. I was convinced they were about to grab me. I had no way of calling anyone, everywhere was shut so there was nowhere to go. It was me and them on a big, dark street. They left me alone after a while, and when I finally found my way home I sobbed and sobbed on to my friend’s shoulder. She swore she’d never leave me alone again. It shouldn’t be her responsibility to protect me, but she felt like it was. If i’m going out alone late now, I always wear big, thick coats, even in the summer, because I’d never felt so naked as I did that night.
I counted the number of times I got catcalled on my way home from college. It averaged twice a day, normally. Sometimes you put up a finger, sometimes you shout back, sometimes you keep your head down, because you don’t know which one of them will get aggressive with you.
The thing that terrifies me the most of all of this, is that i’ve had it easy. They followed me home, but they didn’t touch me. That man groped me, but he didn’t rape me. For some of my friends, its been considerably worse, and there are some stories that make me want to weep. I feel lucky to have got away with what I have, and I’m distraught that they didn’t. I worry the most for my sister. 15 now, she’s about to embark on all of this. The college I got catcalled daily at, she’ll start this September. She’ll be out later, at clubs, discovering her independence. The thought of her being followed, touched, or worse, makes my stomach turn. I hate how it will make her feel. And it will, for certain – she won’t escape it entirely, none of us do.”
“I slept with a guy in my halls in first year, and he told me that he ‘didn’t expect me to be the type of girl who didn’t shave’”
“When I was walking to Egg in Freshers’ Week with some friends, a male LSE student I have never met ran up behind me and slapped my bum so hard I jumped and screamed, and it hurt all night. The group of boys all laughed and I still don’t know who it was.”
“Comments such as “you have a sense of humour, unusual for a girl”. “You’re quite an assertive person, unusual for a girl”. Generally I sometimes feel masculine rather than feminine because of confidence-related personality traits.”
“I was at a club with a group of friends. A few hours into the night, I felt a hand lightly graze my arse. I turned around and one of my closest male friends was behind me. The club was busy so I presumed it was an accident. A few minutes later, it happened again, for longer this time. I moved away. He came up to me again and discreetly started stroking my waist under my top, then moved down to my arse again. This is a guy who usually swaps places with me in clubs so I can avoid exactly what he was doing to me, and a guy who is respected by all his friends and praised for being a ‘great bloke’. This is also a guy who is in a long-term relationship. I was so shocked and confused that I didn’t actually believe it had happened until my friend said the same was happening to her. The worst part was that I was the one who felt guilty, and wanted to leave the club. I felt like I couldn’t call him out on his behaviour because I didn’t want to place my friends in an awkward situation, and also because it might get back to his girlfriend. Now whenever I see him I pretend like nothing’s happened, but my whole perception of him has completely changed. “
“This past summer I did an internship at a big company and on the first day, there was a large social event with all the interns. After a few hours of walking around and socialising, a guy walks up to me, eyes me up and down in the most blatant manner and says, “well, you clearly got this through a connection, didn’t you?”. I was furious. I immediately retorted, “are you fucking serious”. The worst part was he didn’t back down or even pretend he’d realised he was in the wrong. He kept insisting that no way could a girl that looked like me be equally qualified as everyone else or have gone through all the same interview and assessment centre rounds. This was the first day of my internship mind you, where I was already worried that this would be a thought to cross people’s minds. I was mortified and furious, and very scared of the weeks ahead of me.”
“I’d say my worst experience of sexual harassment at uni was on a night out on the ski trip in my first year. I was dancing in a club as, you know, people do in clubs, when suddenly someone started touching me all over from behind. I was so uncomfortable I walked away back to my cabin. I never saw their face.”
“I lost my virginity via assault in first year.”
“In first year I went hom
e with a guy from the FC. A few weeks later I discov
ered he had posted on the FC group chat about it, saying that I had a ‘face of a 5, tits of a 10’.”
“I was sexually assaulted by a friend whom I met at a society I joined last year. We shared a seminar together as well as all the society activities and grew close over several months. After some time of constant messaging between us and meeting up more regularly, we became interested in one another and he started to proposition me. Although a part of me very much wanted to date this guy, I decided against it due to my circumstances at the time.
I met up with him on campus one evening to essentially end things. We ended up sitting on a bench by the Thames to talk things through. That’s when he started touching my thighs. Over the next 15 minutes or so, I was pushing his hands away almost continuously whilst telling him to stop in increasingly firm tones, hoping that he would finally understand that I was being serious. In the
end, I had to walk away. When I got home I called the police, but unfortunately there was no CCTV footage and he chose not to say anything in interview. Later, he told me that he thought that I really did want him to touch me and that I was just saying otherwise. He also didn’t realise that his actions would count as sexual assault (despite us learning about this on our course).
This happened at the beginning of exam season and really affected my mental health and my ability to revise. Luckily, when I reported it to the LSE they were really helpful and set me up with some counselling and even gave me a meeting with the security team to make sure I felt safe on campus.”
“A good friend of mine, out of the blue, starts feeling my waist whilst saying “don’t turn me down” and proceeds to try and kiss me, without any prior indication, and in front of other friends. Afterwards he pretended like it never happened.”
“During freshers week at LSE, a guy undoes my bra strap in the club before I can even see him. The exact same thing happens half an hour later with a different guy.”
“When I was travelling in Europe, I went to a club in Vienna and was dancing with my friends. A man decided to come up behind me and grope me and as I turned around I saw him laughing with his friends about it. I started to feel ashamed and embarrassed, wanting to go home as my mood plummeted. But I took a moment to think about it and decided it wasn’t me who should be feeling shit but him. I went to the smoking area and pointed him out to my friend, and we went over to talk to him. I started flirting with him and asked if I could give him my phone number. My friend was very confused as to why I would want to do this to someone who had groped me, but I set a reminder to come up on his phone for the next morning that read ‘I am a sexist pig who sexually assaults women’, because it wouldn’t be fair to let him forget the events of the evening that nearly ruined mine.”
“Witnessing boys being disrespectful toward women on nights out, ‘she’ll do’ and stuff.”
“Someone I consider a close friend reached out and just grabbed my boob in the middle of the dancefloor, in front of everyone. I think people just thought he was reaching for my drink. “He was wasted” doesn’t even cut it as an excuse when thinking how horrified and mortified I felt.”
“In the club, I feel a guy start rubbing my arse. I turn around and ask him what the fuck he’s doing. The rest of the night, I couldn’t remember exactly what his face looked like but I got frightened and had to move away whenever I saw a guy wearing a long sleeved white t shirt (which turns out to be a lot of guys).”
“So this happened 7 years ago already, when I was in my first year of my BA at LSE. It was a weekday morning and I was walking down Kingsway as normal. I’m stopped by a smart looking, friendly man who looked like he was in his late twenties. He was white, in a classy suit and smiley. He starts chatting to me and for whatever reason I don’t think much of it, so I speak to him. After all he didn’t seem odd or anything. Before I know it he manages to smoothly shift the conversation: now he’s asking me whether we can arrange an appointment. After all I strike him as such a smart, promising student and he thinks he can get me an internship based on my skills and languages. This is when I stop trusting him and leave.
I remember finding the whole experience troubling. I normally don’t open up to strangers, yet he managed to make me trust him and share information like where I study, what I study, where I’m from, which languages I speak to. So I tell a handful of my girlfriends about it. I’m not the most popular person, so we’re only talking about a few people here – all first year female students. Turns out at least two of them have had the exact same experience as me: same place, same or similar man, same type of conversation and offer to a) exchange contact details, b) set up a time and place for the ‘interview’. None of my friends agreed but we all found it suspicious.
Two months later I speak to a female friend at King’s. Her experience is slightly different but there are too many coincidences. She was approached by a man in a suit near her campus but later in the evening. She had the exact same conversation: I want to offer you an internship, etc. She didn’t suspect anything at first so she gets into a cab with the man – the idea was to get to know each other a little before she’d see him again at the interview. He takes her to some hotel. This is when she decides to leave. Thankfully he doesn’t use violence so she’s able to.
This last friend and me agree it’s just too dodgy: men with an approach that clearly works targeting young-looking, ‘conventionally pretty’, female students near their campuses. So I ask to speak to somebody at LSE’s Student Services Centre. I’m lucky: it’s a kind woman who immediately gets our concerns, takes lots of notes, shows empathy and promises that she’ll flag this to the Head of Security at LSE. Soon, I get an appointment with the HoS (a man) and I convince my King’s friend to attend too. We show up and are made to wait. Eventually we’re told he’s running too late due to something coming up and that he’ll reschedule. He never did.
At some point I decide not to ‘obsess’ about this and leave it. But a year later, when I’m in second year and again walking down Kingsway I experience the exact same thing. It’s a different man this time – I remember their faces – but the conversation goes along the exact same lines. Unfortunately, I let my anger get the best of me and I start shouting at him: instead, I should have gotten his contact details and thought of something to frame him or so… I shout and curse him, saying ‘I know what he’s up to’. He runs away as quickly as he can, crossing a busy junction: I’ve never ever seen a grown man look so afraid of me in my life.
I’m angry that there might be even more substance to my concerns. I can’t help but think that this is a really coordinated effort. And if they’re putting all this effort, they’re clearly getting something out of it. My mind races to disturbing things like sexual exploitation, grooming, prostitution and so on.
This time I don’t bother contacting LSE. I go to the nearest police station – but they’re less concerned then the LSE member of staff. I’m not asked to give a description of what the man looks like. The police woman isn’t even taking notes. What I had to say wasn’t recorded in any way. Instead, I’m asked something along the lines of: ‘Are you sure it wasn’t just one of those men who follow you around for a bit just to try to get your attention? But they’re harmless at the end of the day?’. I tell her I know what it’s like to get unwanted male attention. Guys catcalling, following me for a block of two, etc. But this isn’t it, I try to say. It’s more serious. But I’m told there’s nothing they can do.
That’s when I stop trying to make my concerns heard. I’m still convinced that I’m not overthinking it. I’m hugely concerned for more vulnerable female students then me – those who might have found it harder to say no to the offer an internship – maybe because they don’t have enough financial support, or they’re international and their English might be less good then mine. Who knows.
Either way, I think this may count as a #MeToo account. I, too, was targeted because of my gender by men who disrespect women. I, too, was at risk because neither they nor my university nor the police take our safety and wellbeing seriously enough.”