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Guest blog post for Stop Street Harassment

http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2016/09/ukfreshersweek2016/

United Kingdom: Freshers’ Week & Ending Sexual Harassment

Ness Lyons for UNmuted Productions, UK, SSH Blog Correspondent

Today marks the start of Freshers’ Week here in the UK. Over 400,000 undergraduates begin their first week of their first term of their first year at university. A longstanding institution, ‘Freshers’ Week’ – or ‘Welcome Week’, to give it it’s formal name –  is fun, flirty and fabulous. A lot of planning goes into making it so and this year, more so than any other, a lot of effort has also gone into ensuring students’ sexual safety.

“Freshers Week is a celebration so please treat it as such,” states the website for Sussex University’s Student Union.  “Respect other students, their bodies and their choices.  If you’re initiating sexual activity with someone, make sure they are as into it as you are, and that they have the freedom and the capacity to make that decision themselves.”  There’s an unfortunate irony in that statement; this is the same university that last month made a decision to continue to employ a lecturer convicted of assaulting his student girlfriend.

The website Unilad has also done a U-turn when it comes to its attitude towards female students. Four-and-a-half years ago, the site was temporarily suspended after making a joke that encouraged rape during Freshers’ Week.  This autumn however, it’s turned over a new leaf. Unilad has paired with the charity Drinkaware to raise awareness of ‘booze-fueled sexual harassment’; their research shows more than half of 18-24 year old female students have experienced sexual harassment on a night out. Unilad and Drinkaware are campaigning to get young people to ‘call out’ such incidents by using the hashtag #GropeFreeNights.

Drinkaware has also launched a non-virtual initiative to protect drunk students from harassment. The Drinkaware Crew are specially trained staff who will patrol student nightclubs and drinking venues in four areas of the UK, including South Wales. Their aim, according to South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Alun Michael, is to “support customers who are vulnerable as a result of drinking too much and prevent them from potentially becoming victims of crime.” While this quote gives the impression the Drinkaware Crew are there to protect all students from all types of crime, including petty theft, the sober fact is they’re in South Wales because of a series of sexual assaults that took place in Cardiff city centre during the 2015 Freshers’ Week period.

Following the attacks, the police, councils, universities and student bodies in both Cardiff and Swansea formed a task force to prevent the same from happening again this year. Aside from the Drinkaware Crew, they have implemented a Safe Taxi Scheme and Student Safety bus to help students get home safely. While these are all good practical initiatives, further progress has been made by Cardiff University in launching a ‘No Joke’ anti-lad culture campaign in April of this year and NUS Wales running consent workshops. Instead of simply removing potential victims from harm of sexual harassment and assault, it is after all far better to remove the actual risk and that’s what we should see more of.

Ness Lyons