Sexual assault in Spanish universities: the ugly truth

Article published on Aug. 12, 2016
Article published on Aug. 12, 2016

Around 33% of female students in Spanish universities have experienced some form of sexual harassment. How can we tackle this trend? How should universities intervene? How should we support the victims? We tell the story of Amanda*, a young student who was left hurt and humiliated twice: first by her abuser, and then by her university's refusal to investigate the issue.

"At first, he seemed like a normal guy. Between note-taking and classes, the autumn afternoons passed by rapidly. We used to wander through campus together, enjoying crunching piles of leaves beneath our feet. I didn't know that, a few days later, I too would be trampled beneath his feet.

When I understood what had happened, it was already too late; I didn’t want to accept it, I didn’t think he was capable of it. In a matter of seconds, the sweet guy I had shared work and secrets with at university changed completely, giving way to the monster that still haunts me in my sleepless nights.

I remember it all. Frame by frame, like the worst kind of horror film, one I didn’t choose to star in. Every feeling, every sound, every reaction in my body to his attack lingers in my memory, serving as a reminder that the worst dangers lurk in the most unexpected of places.

That same man that, days earlier, I had exchanged laughs and caresses with had disappeared, leaving behind the person who cowardly pushed my face and forcefully covered my mouth to silence his crime.  

That day he raped me at university. He violated my body and wounded my soul, which has not been at peace since."  

                                                                            ...

This is the story of Amanda*, a young French student who moved to Spain to study in Madrid. The university she had chosen to study at for her degree became the scene of her worst nightmares after one of her classmates raped her in a campus bathroom. University officials did not investigate the incident and even tried to silence her story. 

Such incidents are reflected in "Sexual assault at university: how to improve the implementation of means of prevention, detection and intervention", a report lead by the Research Group for Gender Studies at the University of the Balearic Islands, which confirmed that 33.2% of students have suffered some form of sexual violence at Spanish universities. Assaults aren't commonly reported, which makes quantifying these sorts of crimes a more complicated task. To be exact, a study carried out in February of this year by UN Women showed that only 40% of female victims seek help amongst family and friends, and a mere 10% take their case to court.

Amanda decided to speak up. "I couldn’t believe it… At first they thought it was a joke. They asked me millions of questions. Was I sure? Obviously I was sure! They made me feel guilty, as if I had been the one who provoked it. I felt destroyed, humiliated and abandoned as well…"

The recent documentary The Hunting Ground highlights the brutal reality for students across the Atlantic, in US universities. The film tells the stories of two former students who reported rapes that had occurred on campus and both of them had to face university authorities’ lack of interest in what had happened to them on multiple occasions.

 

"No-one bothered to investigate what had happened."

While the physical consequences of sexual assault are potentially the most visible, we should not neglect its psychological effects, or the torment it can cause victims. The institutional and personal abandonment that victims frequently face can only be countered with information. For this reason, Europe is preparing to confront this problem with the initiative Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence (USVSV), led by Brunel University in the UK and financed by the European Commission, with the goal of supporting victims of sexual violence at university.

Multiple civil organisations are also taking a role in dealing with this issue from different perspectives. Among them is University without Violence, a site created by a group of researchers in Madrid, which aims to establish itself as a source of support to enable victims to speak out against abuse. 

Providing the medical and psychological help victims need is of vital importance, as is developing a greater social understanding of the issue, which has often been inadequate. Academics, professionals and civil organisations across the world also insist upon the importance of speeding up the process of reporting assaults, in an effort to avoid victims having to report and, therefore, relive the details of the attack time and time again.

The situation is made even more difficult by strict policies which silence victims, the fear victims experience coming forward, the problem of rapists not recognising their personal responsibility, the lack of information and the lack of general awareness surrounding the issue. 

"I don’t want to be a martyr or an example. The only thing I want is to share the heavy weight I have been carrying around for years," Amanda reflects, with a tone that is helpless and, at the same time, oddly calm. "At times I couldn’t sleep at night because I was thinking about what had happened, whilst he lived his life, pursuing other classmates and forcing them to do things they didn’t want to do… Is it fair what happened to me? I don’t think so, but what is more unfair is that no-one even took the time to look into what had happened." 

---

*Amanda is a pseudonym created to protect the identity of the interviewee