“I’m doing you a favour” says the man to the bouncer, throwing ice on the floor and stomping on it. “I think it’s time you left”, comes the reply, and the student is pulled away, screaming about how the tracks were ‘too fire’ and the ice was to cool the dancefloor down. Such an image is more than a regular occurrence to those in the St Andrews student family, it is practically quintessential. A vast group of young students combined with an even greater quantity of alcohol, it’s actually a surprise when someone isn’t being thrown out of the club. Since the start of term I’ve already seen it enough times to lose count, most spectacularly when a student wobbled through the dancefloor with handfuls of fresh produce he had taken from the crates outside Forgans. Whatever his motives may have been the bouncers considered them unsavoury, and expelled the carrot carrier from the venue.
Yet, while I was laughing recently about one the tale of one of my friends being thrown out of The Vic, it dawned on me. In a world that is seemingly full of conversation about consent culture I had never, even on my soberest nights, seen anyone being disciplined at an event for being sexually inappropriate. I also realised that I never really given the idea of consent in St Andrews much thought, ‘No news is good news right?’ I thought. But nonetheless, after speaking to one of my friends at another UK university, I felt perturbed. He cited a sense of entitlement and arrogance at the institution as a source of large amounts of incidents, almost always unreported, that seemed to go under the radar. I thought about my University, a place that also holds a high demographic of wealthy, intelligent students, and wondered just how safe people are at events.
Regrettably my search didn’t take long, as I started to discover that very different stories from the jovial drunken throw-outs of my previous paragraph. One victim, who has chosen to remain anonymous, was at a St Andrews event when she was approached and danced with by a male student. After numerous attempts to move away and stating how she had a boyfriend the male student proceeded to loosen his tie, put it around both their necks, and attempt to quite literally drag them both together while groping her. Luckily the female student in question managed to move away and found a group of friends. To me this story was astounding, the fact that such blatant sexual misconduct could and did occur in such open places was unfathomable. I decided to look further and see if venues in town were the only place where this sort of problem existed. Soon another victim stated how she had had hands put up her skirt twice while at events outside of town at Kinkell Byre. She went on to say how she was anxious to go to certain events due to the culture that pervaded them. Again I found the idea difficult to grasp, as I was convinced I hadn’t seen these things happen. Thinking logically however, a space such as Kinkell is very difficult for bouncers to police in terms of sexual crime, with wide open areas swarming with hundreds of people.
Considering what I had heard I decided to interview Heather Farley, who has been working with Got Consent for three years and now runs the organisation, to find out how deep the problem of consent runs. Most will remember Got Consent’s workshop at the start of term in first year, where a talk is followed by a Q&A to inform and educate students about the laws the operate around sexual consent in Scotland. They also run a larger Sexual Heath Awareness and Guidance Week (SHAG Week), clinic in The Union that goes into more detail about these issues. First we discussed the extent of the issues here, whereupon she laid bare the sheer amount of sexual harassment that occurs in the town. Describing the problems as “widespread” and “ingrained”, she said she was unable to count the number of incidents she had heard about over her time with Got Consent, reporting how she herself had been sexually harassed at an event. My next questions revolved around the increasing prevalence of mental illness at Universities, something that Ms Farley had also gone to workshops on at St Andrews. It seems likely that, as well as the immediate scarring implications of violating consent, the poisonous culture that is being created by it is raising levels of anxiety amongst both female and male students. They are paranoid when they should be enjoying a key part of university life.
After establishing the issues and asking about them I asked the obvious, “how do we go about solving this problem?” Here I’ll be honest, after hearing from victims I felt a degree of irritation that the bouncers and staff in these venues weren’t ensuring that consent is obtained. Yet, in many cases a lot is already being done. The Union staff are all trained about how to manage situations where they think consent is being violated, and Got Consent is getting wider exposure than it ever has. Along with my realisation that the issue did not only necessarily lie with poor event management, one word from the interview kept sticking: “visibility”. Among students here jokes about alcoholism are common, and serious conversations about the damage of mental illness are a hotly discussed issue. Consent on the other hand is a problem that to me remained near invisible until only a few days ago, and is one that, for one reason or another, remains more than slightly taboo. What needs to happen is a shift in St Andrews event culture, not just a greater awareness by the events themselves. In the words of Ms Farley, “don’t be a bystander, be a friend”.
We are a multicultural university from over a hundred nations, and it is our responsibility to inform ourselves about the laws and conventions surrounding consent in Scotland, before putting them into practice. Despite being in Scotland over a year I didn’t know that, for instance, a woman can’t legally rape a man here, or that sexual assault by a woman against a man can carry the same sentence as rape. When I was mugged in St Andrews in First Year I was scared to come forward, and the only reason I eventually did was because of the threat posed to my fellow students. Here is exactly the same, to be inactive and uninformed is to be part of the problem. No news is not good news, it is exactly the opposite, it is a symptom of how even forward thinking and intelligent bodies of people can have submerged issues that right now continue to damage the health of our student body. We are a small University, one that in its traditions and processes lays great claim to the idea of being a “family”. If we are to continue using such terminology it is time to admit something is wrong, time to say our events are not a hunting ground and be more than a bystander, more even than a friend: time to be a family.