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The pandemic is a potential sexual abuse crisis

Our universities are failing to address the problems of lockdown dating

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We need to address the realities of lockdown for students. In a world where online dating and meeting strangers in dark parks and unknown houses looms, the dangers of sexual attacks both online and in person are at an all-time high. Our University needs to confront these issues head on and offer more complete support and education for those at risk.

In an idealised world, lockdown would be a thing of the past. Yet we are now in lockdown number three and we need to address the reality that university students are continuing to have sex with people outside of their households. The Telegraph recently wrote an article about the risks of a winter lockdown for women who use online dating apps – I would argue that for university students who are especially prone to feelings of isolation, a risk of online and physical abuse is even higher.

Online attack can be a form of sexual abuse. It is a multifaceted, ambiguous topic and with platforms such as Snapchat, where there is decreased accountability (images and messages can be sent and then lost to the void), students should be warned of the risks of conversing with anyone online. Anyone who makes you feel shame or discomfort through use of sexual images or messages, is someone who should be blocked as soon as possible. It is not always easy though, as this could be a random from Tinder but equally it could be a “friend”.

Bombarding us with emails about loneliness and safety nets, the University has done nothing to address the realities of lockdown for young people who are isolated and more than ever reliant on their mobile phones to make connections.

"There has to be an improvement in the sexual abuse education provided to us, one that deals with the role of the digital world in sexual relationships"

People aged 18 – 25 are one of the least at risk groups during this pandemic, but one of the most at risk to online sexual abuse. Around 50,000 cases of sexual abuse take place in universities in England and Wales every year. This doesn’t even take into account many cases that doubtless go unheard, or forms of abuse that we are not taught to expect or recognise. During secondary school there is massive emphasis on online bullying and
warnings about pornographic content, but why does this end when we get to university? With the freedom to meet who we please and the relative inexperience of university students, as well as a harrowing screen time addiction, we are a group ripe for online abuse.

In refusing to acknowledge the fact that people are breaking lockdown rules to have sex, the University is failing to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. Women are especially at risk, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men experience rape or sexual assault by penetration every year in England and Wales. Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence of any form ever report it. In a lockdown culture, the peril of even more cases falling through the gaps is staggering. A student in breach of lockdown rules is even more unlikely to report a case of sexual assault. There are no safe spaces to meet new people and in the dark winter months that prevail, the measures young people face to protect the clinically vulnerable in society leave others open to sexual attack and victims increasingly ashamed.

“Make sure you only give tea to someone who wants tea”. This is what my College said to me in a brief assembly about consent. In retrospect, this was a wholly inadequate message for tackling modern day problems when it comes to dating and sex. We are adults and should be spoken to as such, especially when it comes to a topic that has come to the forefront in university scandals within recent years. It was only 2018 when the Warwick group chat scandal took place. Surely this should have highlighted that the infamous ‘lad culture’ that pervades university campuses, perpetuating rape and sexual abuse, is increasingly an online problem and not ‘just’ a grope in a club or pub? There has to be an improvement in the sexual abuse education provided to us, one that deals with the role of the digital world in sexual relationships and one that doesn’t ignore what is really happening behind self-isolated doors.

The University is ignoring the reality of this lockdown, leaving lonely young people to meet others in private spheres: online chats or even worse, dark parks and the homes of strangers. We no longer have the protective crowds of a bar, pub, cafe or restaurant.

Shutting down our social lives is important to protect our loved ones, but the University needs to address how it has really impacted the sexual abuse scandal that haunts the nightmares of Boards and Chancellors. Their approach to sexual abuse, one of irreverence, shame and fear of disrepute, must be updated. The Pandemic has only heightened a problem that should have been confronted years ago. It is a warning that has so far fallen on deaf ears.

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