Congratulations to Emma Watson, feminist warrior. The 26-year-old actor and book-club curator continued her crusade for gender equality yesterday in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Two years after her stirring “HeForShe” address, Watson has called for universities around the world to protect their female students by taking rampant sexual violence against women seriously.
“A university should be a place of refuge that takes action against all forms of violence,” she said. “That’s why we believe that students should leave university believing in, striving for, and expecting societies of true equality in every sense and that universities have the power to be a vital catalyst for that change.” Universities should, she continued, “make it clear that the safety of women, minorities and anyone who might be vulnerable, is a right, not a privilege”.
Watson’s plea comes at an achingly crucial time. Sexual assault is an epidemic on university campuses around the world. In the UK, one in three female students will experience some form of sexual assault while at university, and the stats are similarly alarming in countries like the United States and Australia. Of that group, 43 per cent will not report the crime against them – not to authorities and not even to friends or family. That’s because, as Watson argues, universities are unsafe spaces for women. If the survivors of sexual assault felt as though their experiences would be taken seriously and their attackers held accountable, they would be more likely to go to the authorities. As it is, the experience of sexual assault on campus is isolating, frightening and discriminatory.
Just this week – the day of Watson’s speech – a male student from Oxford University was arrested for sexual assault and grievous bodily harm. He has been described as “highly intelligent” and “brilliant” by newspapers and people who know him, as though perhaps his IQ might exonerate him from a violent sexual attack on one of his female peers. The young man has been taken into custody and police say his attack left his victim “physically and psychologically scarred”. Given our cultural fascination with elite male college students, we will no doubt hear more of this crime in the days to come.
Meanwhile today, in Tokyo, a 22-year-old man has appeared in court on charges of sexual assault at his university. The remarkable thing about his case is that he actually founded a group specifically to sexually assault women on his campus, which he called “The University of Tokyo Birthday Research Group”. In April, he and his buddies undressed and groped a woman, pouring boiling ramen noodles on her breasts and applying a hairdryer to her genitals. He defended his actions, saying that he thought women deserved to be sexually assaulted because they are “inferior students”. The misogyny is staggering.
Right now, universities are failing women by mishandling sexual assault cases and being complicit in a culture of fear, shame and secrecy
When I was at university in Sydney, Australia, I discovered a Facebook group of male students that declared itself “pro-rape, anti-consent”. Complaints had been made against one of the group’s members, so it was more than a theoretical stance. The arrogance with which these men dismiss women’s safety is also staggering. They wouldn’t get away with such flagrant entitlement if universities adequately reprimanded them.
I’d like to vehemently back Emma Watson in her plea for universities to implement real, urgent action. I’d like to cheer her, loudly, for bringing it up so publicly. The reality is that university campuses are simply not safe for women – not here, not in Tokyo, not in Sydney, not anywhere in the world. Women fought long and hard for the right to attend university and get an education – it’s a harrowing shame that they should feel threatened or be attacked there. Especially when, as Watson says, they could and should be the sites of social progress.
Getting a tertiary education is supposed to be elucidating and formative. It’s a rite of passage for millions of people, as they negotiate their fledgling adulthood and work out who the very hell they’re going to be. Right now, universities are failing women by mishandling sexual assault cases and being complicit in a culture of fear, shame and secrecy.
Watson is entirely correct when she says that if we can change the culture and reduce sexual crime at universities, we can potentially effect real change in broader society. To do that, we need a plan of action and we need it fast. We must teach men not to rape and show them there are consequences for misogyny and that institutions take sexual violence seriously. Secondly, we must hold perpetrators of assault accountable, regardless of their privilege, intelligence or social standing. Thirdly, we need give women clear and reliable support so that they can report crimes against them with confidence.
Until we do that, university campus is just another setting for violent misogyny. And that’s unacceptable.