Do you feel safe? Female students discuss their experiences in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death

By Lauren Taylor |

The news of the past couple of weeks has been difficult to digest for many across the country. Despite doing everything women are constantly told to do in order to stay safe – wearing bright clothing, talking on the phone to her partner and walking on a main road – Sarah Everard was still killed by a man who was hired by the system that is supposed to protect us. 

Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash

The incident has sparked nationwide conversations about women’s safety, experiences of sexual harassment and assault, as well as criticisms of the criminal justice system. These conversations have prompted an investigation into sexual violence against women, and the results of a widely distributed survey showed that 97% of women aged 18-24 in this country have been sexually harassed – a number which has shocked many. Social media hashtags have begun to circulate, such as the #ReclaimTheseStreets movement, which eventually came to a head at the Clapham Common vigil on 13 March. 

Sarah Everard’s horrific death has exposed many flaws in our society that were previously unspoken. Now, women have realised that it is time to speak up and Sarah’s death has given them the well-needed momentum to do this. 

In order to investigate how female students at Falmouth and Exeter have experienced sexual assault and harassment whilst at university, The Falmouth Anchor conducted a survey which was completed by a range of female students across both universities. The answers highlight a real problem at the universities and in Falmouth and Penryn in general – despite a representative from Falmouth Council denying that there is a real issue that needs to be dealt with. 

“I thought of all of the things that I cannot do but men can… I got progressively more angry.”

In response to the question: “Have you had experiences of sexual harassment at university?”, which includes instances of catcalling, receiving unsolicited messages and rape, 55% of the students answered yes. However, in response to the next question, which was applicable to the 55%: “Did you report the harassment to the police or the university/SU?”, only 10% of respondents said that they had reported the incident. This can be due to a number of reasons, such as self-blame, not recognising that the incident was a case of sexual harassment, fear of judgement and fear of not being taken seriously by authorities. The #MeToo movement, which went viral in 2017, shows that victims of sexual assault do not come forward for many years due to these reasons – something that needs to change. Society needs to overcome this stigma. 

When posed the question: “Do you feel safe on the [Penryn, Woodlane and Truro] campuses?”, 80% of respondents said yes. This number dropped significantly on the next question, which was: “Do you feel safe in Penryn or Falmouth?”, to which only 52% of respondents said yes. One student opened up further and said: “I am originally from south-east London, and so coming to Falmouth was completely different. However, I have spent so many nights rushing home, carrying my keys tightly in my hand, always being on my guard. What I was most scared of happened to Sarah Everard.” 

Another student also opened up with a similar experience, saying: “I am from Essex and I have never felt safe there because a lot of crime happens. In Cornwall, I always felt safe because it is such a stark contrast – now, I don’t feel safe after seeing the news about Sarah Everard. It made me so sad and angry. I thought of all of the things that I cannot do but men can… I got progressively more angry.” 

“I would like to see men stand by women, put these things into action, listen to us and have empathy.”

There is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, nationally and by the universities. 85% of the survey respondents said that there is not enough support by the universities for women who have faced sexual harassment, and 73% said that there is not enough support from external organisations. Overall, 95% of the respondents think that more can be done to protect women in general.

The Anchor asked willing interviewees what they think should be done to protect women. One student said: “It starts with sex education. So many issues are scattered across the curriculum. Consent was never communicated, and I did not understand sexual assault or harassment when I was younger, despite experiencing it. Female pleasure and sexuality are not explained and the sexualisation of women feeds into the oppressing culture. Policies and education have to change the mindset of those who are on the giving end of sexual harassment. Women and other sympathisers can protest and complain but it’s not doing anything.”

Another student explained: “There is a structural problem that is clear in society’s attitudes. The answer is not the university sending more police in, it’s not a workshop, it is the fact that the institution thinks that it is not relevant. 97% of women have been sexually harassed and it is being dismissed outright. The change has to come from the boys. I am lucky that my male housemates completely understand what is happening, but I see certain people on Instagram posting the statistic without understanding the deeper meaning. Women are the ones mostly sharing it, which is great, but they are not the problem.” 

A third student said: “I think what would make me feel safer is men allowing us to explain what they can do and actually seeing the changes in society. I want them to cross the road, do not approach me, do not walk directly behind me. Men need to put themselves in our shoes and learn how we feel. I would like to see men stand by women, put these things into action, listen to us and have empathy. They do not realise what we go through – they can just go running after dark without a second thought! I understand the decision about additional streetlights but putting police officers in plain clothing is not a good tactic. It makes me more scared.” She further explains how the university can show solidarity to all affected women. She said, “I would like to see the university have some sort of campaign and stand by women. They also need to make it easier and more accessible to report sexual assault and harassment on campus. I know that [Exeter] made a statement, but they need to do more.”

Falmouth University sent an email to students which highlighted their incident reporting tool, while the University of Exeter circulated a statement on 19 of March after two incidents of sexual assaults on the Streatham Campus. While this statement is important as it has communicated the incident to all students, it does not include any indication as to how they will prevent sexual assault on campus in the future. The Anchor contacted the vice-chancellor and the registrar for comment. 

A University of Exeter spokesperson said: “The safety, security and wellbeing of our students is, and always will be, our primary concern. We have put in place a wide range of safety and support measures in recent years, improved our policies and reporting system and we will continue to work with students, colleagues and community partners to tackle misogyny and violence against women – this includes a special session of the Provost Commission in April on our collective role as a community and institution. It is critical that we continue to support each other and work together to keep all members of our community safe and feeling safe. We encourage all students to report and get the support they need through our Exeter Speaks Out web pages as well as our wellbeing support for students and staff or the Students’ Guild Advice Service or the Students’ Union Advice Service.”

The Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union Presidents released a statement on Instagram, explaining how the all-female team resonated with students sharing how they have been impacted by the murder of Sarah Everard. Moreover, Charlotte Agnew, president welfare & inclusivity has published a statement on Facebook and also told the Anchor: “I have had a meeting with Mia Terra St Hill (Women’s Officer) and Kira Orchard (Community Officer) about talking to the local police on women’s safety. We have reached out to them and will communicate what we discuss in a small comms piece shortly. We take this topic extremely seriously, especially as I am someone who has experienced sexual harassment, so it is important that the right links are established to ensure that students are better protected in the local community and that the Universities can step in with clearer signposting to the Falmouth and Exeter Speak Out tool and external resources. I have also asked Melissa Muchema (Racial Equality Officer) to be involved with the discussions, as the vulnerability of Asian women aligns with women’s personal safety. Whilst Mia, Kira and I are all white, we understand the experience will be different for BIPOC students. Overall, I am having discussions with Falmouth and Exeter staff about this ongoing situation and they both fully support the SU reaching out to the police to continue discussions.”  

Charlotte bravely spoke further about her experience of sexual assault and how she believes there should be clearer signposting from the University. She said: “I’ve always loved going out and socialising, but my last memory of a night out before lockdown ended awfully. In a club in Falmouth, my friends and I were dancing away. As usual, people were placing hands on my hips and my sides, so my group would rotate to break away from the unwanted attention. We carried on dancing without letting it affect our evening. However, out of nowhere, a hand reached out and grabbed my private area from under my skirt. I was angry, shocked and furious and yelled that it was unacceptable. I do not know who did it and I did not know how to report it, I felt there was no point. A couple of months later, I learnt that I could have reported it as a crime. That is why there needs to be clearer signposting to students. So often cases like my own go unreported and nothing is done about it.” 

While steps are being taken to protect women, it is clear that it is just not enough. The universities, the Students’ Union and national organisations need to step up to prevent anything like what happened to Sarah Everard happening again. Women are fearful, now more than ever, but they are also tired of feeling this way. What should not be an issue anymore has become more prevalent over the past few weeks and the national conversation is just the beginning. Changes are needed and they are needed now. 

Over to you, Falmouth and Exeter.

This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.