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Anonymity and Accountability

How anonymous online platforms are changing attitudes and responses to sexual assault and harassment in Edinburgh

Writing by Bella Henricks. Illustration via Unsplash.

tw: rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, mentions of gaslighting, neglect, slut-shaming, victim-blaming

The Instagram page Edinburgh Anonymous (@edi_anonymous) has published over 160 anonymously submitted testimonies of sexual violence and harassment at Edinburgh universities. At present, there are reportedly 52 testimonies awaiting publication. Almost 80% of submissions to the Edinburgh Anonymous page indicate that the perpetrator was a friend or partner of the victim, often also residing in the same accommodation, or attending the same university as the victim.

The rise in pages such as Edinburgh Anonymous tells us that young people in the UK wish to share their experiences, support others, access resources, and learn more about the nature of sexual offences. “Affirmations” for newly published submissions harness the kindness of the Edinburgh community; responses such as “You’re strong for sharing this, you’re not alone, and reading your story made me feel less alone” show a massive cultural shift in slut-shaming, and victim-blaming culture. Online pages are making it known that experiences of sexual assault and harassment are painfully common, and they are exposing rape culture and its origins in a way that would not have been possible without social media platforms.

Everyone’s Invited (@everyonesinvited) has gained over 97,000 followers through its exposure of rape culture in UK schools and universities. There are 54,046 testimonies on their website, and 119 UK universities have been named in these testimonies. The University of Edinburgh was mentioned more than any other university in Scotland, and with 53 separate allegations, it outranks 115 UK universities for the prevalence of sexual violence, harassment, misogyny, and rape culture among its students and staff.

And yet, the University of Edinburgh has at no point publicly promoted a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault, sexual violence, or sexual harassment specifically. Sexual crimes and misconduct are shoe-horned in with more general bullying, harassment and misconduct policies which is not reflective of the prevalence and severity of the issue. It is common to hear complaints that the university takes plagiarism more seriously than rape. University accommodations, such as Pollock Halls, have been mentioned in a multitude of allegations in the past two years regarding sexual misconduct. No Edinburgh University accommodation currently has compulsory consent classes for students in place. A student who resided in Pollock Halls from 2018-2019 has stated that “each house within the halls received a compulsory talk about fire safety, but no one was told about consent, or rape, or who you could talk to if something bad happened to you. If they can get everyone together and tell them not to light candles in their room, they can tell students not to sexually assault others. Rape is a safety issue as well.”

Online platforms that allow people to share their experiences have been incredible in shifting the conversation towards prevention, support, and education. Victims are being believed and praised for their bravery, encouraging others to come forward. However, such platforms cannot prevent and punish in the same way that institutions like The University of Edinburgh can. Where is the recognition and condemnation of Edinburgh University’s rape culture from Professor Peter Mathieson, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor? Where is the legal support for students making accusations through and about the university? When will every student arriving at a Scottish University be told what constitutes a sexual offence under Scottish Law? When will The University of Edinburgh, and institutions like it, prioritise prevention over crisis-management?

A petition has now been launched against The University of Edinburgh’s sexual violence redressal system that has gained over 2,670 signatures in three days (at the time of writing). The petition calls for change to the Student Disciplinary Committee that is accused of “neglect”, victim-blaming, gaslighting, and turning a “blind eye”. Promoted on social media, this petition is holding the University of Edinburgh accountable, but it is an utter disgrace that such a petition is needed in the first place.

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