Sexual Assault on Campus: an interview with Lesley Johnston

cw: Sexual Assault

The last few months have been ones of caution for women across the country. Following the emergence of the spiking epidemic and cases of sexual assault within the police force, sexual violence against women has once more been thrown into the public sphere. Having been met with voracious protest, people are now asking: what now?

The BBC recently reported that between 15-20 cases of sexual abuse on campus are reported every year at the University of Edinburgh. That’s roughly just short of one case of sexual abuse per working week. The Student wanted to learn more about what the University is doing to prevent sexual abuse and what services are in place to support survivors. 

The Student spoke to the University’s Sexual Violence & Harassment Liaison Manager, Lesley Johnston. It’s Lesley’s job to support survivors of abuse and work alongside various initiatives within Edinburgh to improve awareness and the services available. 

“There’s a disproportionate number of people who are affected by sexual violence and other forms of gender based violence,” Lesley told The Student. “Lots of young people are affected by this and yet very few people actually report it to the police…”

It was estimated by the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre in 2020, that around 63% of sexual abuse cases are not reported. Victims are less likely to report abuse if they fear retaliation, shame, or a lack of action, with reports of sexual assault often not being taken seriously enough by individuals or authorities. 

So, what can survivors of sexual abuse expect from the University of Edinburgh if they do choose to disclose their assault?

“We work closely with Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis in Edinburgh, and we actually give funding to Rape Crisis for longer-term counselling support,” Lesley told us. “So, we try and put a package of care around individual students if they make a disclosure – and we are having more disclosures.”

“If a student has been assaulted by another student… then individuals can raise a complaint under student conduct and there will be an investigation. It’s not quite the same as a criminal investigation but there will be penalties. If a student is considering making a formal report… then I can link them up with a police officer who will come and have an informal chat… Many students are very traumatised after such an event… and to be in a position of having to make lots of choices, it’s very difficult for them.”

So, what is the University actively doing to support survivors?

“We’ve got lots of e-learning modules and we’ve just put a new one up for students and staff around: what is consent? We’ve also got a new report and support platform… [which] includes information about what abusive behaviour is, because often young people don’t realise that they’ve been a victim… If a student doesn’t want to report their abuse, that’s absolutely fine; we never put pressure on anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. We provide students with options; we can fast-track them into student counselling and… we can also refer them to external organisations.

“This information is always private and confidential, and it doesn’t go on an individual’s student record. We can help students apply for special circumstances if their academic work is having an impact, which it generally does, and we can even get what’s called precautionary measures: if a student has been assaulted, then we will look at what is making them feel anxious on campus, and… try prevent their assailant from using particular buildings.”

Yet, why does sexual assault occur?

“It’s an age-old problem, isn’t it? It is gender inequality… We have some really good legislation in Scotland, quite progressive, but even when you have good legislation, if the attitude behind it hasn’t changed, then it’s difficult for it to be imposed. For example, our rape conviction is 1.2% or something, it’s absolutely tiny, so we want to improve on that. It’s a work-in-progress, but I think we’re at a peak where young women are quite rightly saying, you know what? We’ve had enough.”

In 2020, only 130 convictions were made in Scotland despite 2,342 reports of rape and attempted rape being reported. So, how can we engage with men at the University and in wider society to change attitudes?

“People, young men in particular, know what isn’t acceptable, but they think they’re going to get away with it. So, we work with our criminal justice providers and with our student conduct team to make young men realise that sexual abuse is against the law and there are severe penalties if you are caught… Young men at times don’t really understand how to have healthy relationships… There’s a healthy respect pack that the Scottish government has just reviewed, and it’s what we use in schools to look at healthy relationships and discuss what is coercive and controlling… When men are abusive to partners, it’s generally because they’re very insecure themselves… It’s very difficult to engage with young men and for them to accept that they actually have a problem. So, I think we’ve got a bit of work to do on that.”

So, what is Lesley’s main message?

“My main message would be: if anybody’s in any doubt, come forward. I have an open referral system and I’m in the process of recruiting for two new senior case workers which will expand the capacity of my team…To the survivors: we believe you, and you can come forward and get some support.”

For more information, please visit the University of Edinburgh Sexual Violence, Harassment, Abuse and GBV page on the University’s website.

Image via Flickr

By Kate Sinclair

Politics student and Features editor at The Student. Interested in environmental politics and social justice.