7 May 2015

#NotGuilty giving courage to speak out about sexual assault

‘Amelia’, not her real name, was attacked six months ago in Oxford. The student, who had left her college to get some air, told us she was punched, tied up, forced to have oral sex, and then dumped in a bin.

One of her two attackers threatened to kill her, she said, if she did not stop screaming.

But Amelia did not tell the police, nor has she ever told her parents and only a few friends know. In fact, it was only in the past few weeks that she has even sought counselling.

But what helped her was a letter written in the Cherwell – Oxford’s independent student newspaper – by Ione Wells.

Ms Wells, also an Oxford University student, was attacked on her way home one night in north London. She was dragged to the ground, repeatedly punched, and sexually assaulted. In her open letter to her assailant – and waiving her anonymity – she wrote she would never become a victim or change her behaviour. Yesterday that assailant was sentenced to one year youth detention.

But the impact of the letter was far-reaching. Off the back of it the campaign #notguilty began. From around the world, Ione and the newspaper began receiving emails – so many of them from both women and men, all of them telling similar stories. It was not just about being assaulted or raped. So many of those emails were about guilt. That feeling that they, somehow, were to blame because they might have been drinking or they walked alone at night. They ask themselves did I wear the wrong clothing, did I look at him in the wrong way, did I ask for it?


And that was the case for Amelia. The story she tells is horrendous and frightening, yet she says she did not tell the police because she was very ashamed at the time. “People say if you’re a young female after having a bit too much to drink you shouldn’t really be going out alone. I was crying hysterically and I remember I changed my story. I just told my friends, yes, two guys had attacked me but I’d been able to throw a couple of punches and fight them off- and that was all I ever told them – for months – and probably what some of them still believe.

After she read Ione Wells’ story she, too, wrote to the Cherwell, and has now spoken to Channel 4 News. Although she does not want her real identity revealed, it is a significant step forward. That she is not alone, however, is all too apparent. It’s thought as few as 11 per cent of rapes are ever reported. We still have lower prosecution rates in England and Wales compared with other European countries.

But here is a worse statistic. From the Office of National Statistics: “One in 5 people admitted they believe that the victim is partly responsible for a sexual attack if they have been drinking.” “It helped me reading her (Ione’s) letter, that she was brave enough to not only fight back in her own way but to also come out not anonymously and say this isn’t right,” ‘Amelia’ told us. “What she was doing walking alone at night, that doesn’t make her guilty, which is something I struggled with for a long time. I was alone. I was drunk, alone at night in a place I didn’t really know.”

‘Waive anonymity’

Attacks, of course, take many forms. We also spoke to Kristina Lunz. She also wrote – anonymously – to the Cherwell to tell her story. But when we asked to speak to her she decided to waive her anonymity. She wants this campaign to have an impact. And her story is interesting because it highlights the range of harassment and attacks. In her case (and it is a very familiar story) she was in a restaurant with a friend when two men sat down near them.

“You started talking to us,” Christina wrote. “You demanded we should have drinks with you. We said, ‘Thank you, that is very kind of you, but we don’t want to have any drinks.” When they refused, the men started becoming aggressive, she said. They shouted ‘You ugly b*****s, who do you think you are?’.

One of them got money of their wallet and threw it at them. “They said ‘dance for us, s****s’,” Christina said. It went on until she called the police at which point, Christina told us, the restaurant owner became angry with them asking them why they were causing trouble. They were quite simply afraid. And in fact one of the harassers from that night was prosecuted and fined.

Facebook campaign

Before she spoke to us, Christina asked friends on Facebook to tell their stories. “I wrote this post on Facebook asking my friends to share experiences with me and it was absolutely incredible how many emails and messages I received from my friends telling me stories about rapes that happened to them, rapes that happened to their best friends, being sexually assaulted by the uncle of a best friend, being touched, raped at frat parties.

“These are not things that do not happen often, they happen very often.” And that, she said, is why she welcomes this campaign. Indeed, she says that some of her friends asked her why she bothered complaining to the police. That, she told us, was precisely the issue. “It shows what point we are in our society that these things are normal.”

Sara Thornton, who is the new Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, also welcomed the campaign. She told Channel 4 News: “I think that all police forces locally need to think what can we do to capitalise on this, we have victims coming forward, victims contacting newspapers, contacting the websites, What can we do locally to encourage victims to have more confidence, what can we do to reassure people that they will be listened to that they will be dealt with very sensitively and that we will take their concerns seriously?”

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