Sexual assault at LSE: What has Hands Off achieved?

By Bora Bayram

In light of the recent murder of Sarah Everard, sexual assault and women’s safety are issues that have come to the forefront. At LSE, the voices of those campaigning for better treatment of sexual assault victims on campus demand to be centred. In October 2019, Hands Off LSE organised a week of events to raise awareness and start discussions around how to support sexual assault survivors and tackle the issue at LSE. In a climate where, according to a survey by The Student Room, almost 2 in 3 students and graduates had experienced sexual violence while at university, Hands Off was, and continues to be, an important presence on campus. The Beaver spoke to Hands Off and the Community and Welfare Officer, Laura Goddard, about what has been achieved by the campaign and what is left to be done.

In a piece for The Beaver in November 2019, Ella Holmes, one of the students who spearheaded Hands Off at its inception, described her experience of sexual assault as an LSE student. She describes experiencing two wildly different responses to her report of sexual assault: a pragmatic but unsympathetic one from the police, and an emotional yet unhelpful one from an LSE counsellor. It’s clear that starting this campaign was deeply personal for Holmes, given how her report was dealt with by LSE. “I needed information about how to report a crime, which I did not receive in full, I needed a description of what that process would entail, and I needed someone to warn me about what kind of information I would have to provide and how that might make me feel, ” she stated. 

In light of what Holmes, alongside many others, experienced at LSE, Hands Off set off with the aim of revitalising LSE’s provision of sexual assault support and instigating a conversation about sexual assault on campus. The SU was also given a mandate in the November 2019 General Meeting to lobby LSE to take various steps to improve its system to deal with sexual assault. Goddard, who proposed the motion, says she has lobbied and worked with LSE to achieve many of the objectives set in the motion during her tenure.

Goddard says that she, along with General Secretary David Gordon, has secured a new partnership with Survivors UK to specifically provide support for male and trans survivors, a commitment from the Student Wellbeing service to offer a 24-hour counselling service (which has already been implemented), and the hiring of a Sexual Misconduct Employee (SME). The latter in particular has been a prime focus of the campaign since its beginning, and Hands Off cites it as a major success. An SME will “support survivors at LSE and help the process of reporting the perpetrator,” according to Hands Off. Goddard says that despite the hiring freeze instituted by LSE due to the pandemic, the university is set to start advertising for the position within weeks. “Provided there are enough good candidates we should definitely see this role hired and filled by the end of Summer Term at a maximum.”

The reporting of sexual assault is low in universities in general, with the Student Room survey finding only 6% of people who experienced sexual violence reported it to their university. 29% of those who didn’t report it provided the reason that they “didn’t know how to make a report”. LSE has the ‘Report It Stop It’ platform for students to report any harassment or violence they have seen or experienced. However, Hands Off has been vocal about what they regard as an ambiguous platform. “It’s very unclear if you’re dealing with a sexual assault case,” says Anaëlle, one of the students involved in Hands Off since its beginning. “Sexual harassment is not taken into account as a separate issue,” referring to the fact that LSE’s reporting focuses on harassment in general and not specifically on sexual harassment or assault. On their own initiative, they have even compiled resources to different LSE and external services in a page to help survivors easily find support.

Counselling has been a cause for concern for many students, perhaps most importantly for sexual assault survivors. Holmes describes a bewildered and ultimately unhelpful LSE counsellor that dealt with her case. Yet the problems seem not to be limited to individual counsellors. Hands Off sees multiple faults with the counselling system. They complain that a female sexual assault survivor can only book a maximum of 3 monthly appointments with a counsellor from Rape Crisis UK. The number of appointments available for male, trans, and non-binary survivors through the new partnership with Survivors UK is unclear, though Goddard says they are “decided between the organisation and the survivor based on the charity’s capacity, the survivor’s needs etc.” Appointments still have to be booked by email, which Hands Off regards as “a significant barrier for students.’ Progress has been made since Hands Off started campaigning – the new partnership with Survivors UK being one example. Another is that LSE increased the number of ‘safe contacts’ within the school from 7 to 36 in 2020.

LSE is behind many other universities in the provision of these services. Anaëlle points out that the University of Oxford has an entire team to specifically deal with sexual assault. She observes that “LSE is really slow in terms of responding to campaign demands.” This is evident in how the first major successes of the campaign have only started to materialise this year. However, Hands Off still has ambitious targets that they aim to achieve: compulsory consent training, new policies governing student-staff relationships, improved reporting services, and a review of extenuating circumstances policy. 

The SU has taken initiative on many of these issues. Goddard says she is writing a proposal for the LSE 2030 strategy for mandatory consent training, and campaigning for “male-only, male-led active bystander and consent workshops and the School to review security arrangements at LSE-affiliated events.” Goddard adds that “this is in part the School’s agreement, in light of the devastating news of Sarah Everard, to listen to the SU on changes that we think need to be made to make women in particular feel safe on campus and beyond.” The impact of Hands Off has clearly been far-reaching for the SU’s efforts to lobby LSE. It remains to be seen how much more LSE will give in to their demands.


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