‘My parents didn’t believe me’ - students speak out about sexual misconduct at Durham University

Video report by Andrew Misra

Current and former students have told ITV Tyne Tees about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault while studying at Durham, and expressed their concerns about the so-called ‘lad’ culture at the university.

It follows derogatory messages leaked from freshers’ group chats ahead of the start of this academic year, which led to a student’s offer being withdrawn by the university.

In a separate incident, the university announced at the start of the second week of term (October 12) that a student had been expelled for a serious breach of its sexual misconduct policy, while another student was expelled for making racist remarks on social media.

Aishwarya Balaji is a student at Durham University, who says she was sexually harassed in her university bedroom, before managing to get out of the situation.

She said: “He got really drunk one night and walked into my room at two in the morning when I was asleep..and then he tried to have sex with me..and I tried to get out of the situation as quick as possible.

When the 20-year-old confronted the individual the following day, she said he told her it was “just a bet from his friends”.

Aishwarya, who is from India, decided to speak out after a series of leaked screenshots from fresher group chats, including an apparent competition to sleep with ‘the poorest student’, sparked outrage on social media.

Further derogatory, misogynistic messages, seen by ITV Tyne Tees, were also shared from a ‘boys’ group chat.

One of the messages seen by ITV Tyne Tees

The messages were shared on Facebook by Lydia Gibson, a new first year student and grew up in Durham. The 20-year-old said she was horrified after reading them.

She said: “I really wanted to get the message across that this is quite a widespread issue at Durham from the students. 

“Everyone knows about this elitist vibe.”

Durham University has since withdrawn a student’s offer of study, following an investigation into the messages, describing them as “utterly abhorrent”.

Two other males involved didn’t have their places removed, as they were not found to have fallen short of the university’s values.

A former student who told ITV Tyne Tees, anonymously, that she was raped while sleeping during her time at the university a number of years ago, says the action taken is insufficient.

Catherine, which is not her real name, said:  “These people should have been held up as an example to say to everyone else that we have absolutely zero tolerance for any kind of commentary like this.”

Durham University declined multiple interview requests from ITV Tyne Tees, but sent us a statement from Pro Vice Chancellor, Jeremy Cook. 

He said:  “..the safety and wellbeing of our students is our first priority...we have an extensive programme of activity through education aimed at prevention of sexual violence and misconduct…

“We encourage our staff and students to disclose instances of sexual misconduct and violence to us, so that they can access support…”

A separate, earlier university investigation found that Catherine was telling the truth about being raped, but she explained how even her loved ones doubted her.

She said: “My parents didn’t believe me and they also asked me what I had done to incite it, they were asking me what I was wearing, asking ‘why was this person in your bed?’. 

“It’s still something that affects my relationship with them.

“Really when it hit me most was my second year of university, it was really really deeply affecting. To me, it’s basically me pre-incident and me post-incident. I see myself kind of as two different people.”

Research published last year by the Brook charity suggests that the problems of sexual misconduct and sexual violence are widespread in higher education institutions across the country.

It shows that over half (53%) of UK university students have been exposed to unwanted sexual behaviours - such as inappropriate touching, explicit messages, cat-calling, being followed and/or being forced into sex or sexual acts.

With the coronavirus pandemic leading to hundreds of students across the North East having to quarantine in university halls of residence, there are fears that these living conditions could lead to a rise in sexual violence.

Kim Harrison, abuse lawyer at the law firm Slater & Gordon, said: “During the first period of lockdown domestic violence soared as women and children couldn’t escape their abuser. If we’re not careful we could see something very similar within localised lockdowns.

“If you’ve got a very large university halls of residence in a lockdown situation that can’t escape, then that’s going to make things like a big pressure cooker”. 

 In 2016, Durham University were the first UK university to appoint a full-time officer for Sexual Violence and Misconduct.

Experts are calling for further support for survivors. The Brook research also found that fewer than one in ten students (8%) exposed to unwanted sexual behaviour report an offence. 

Fay Maxted OBE is CEO of The Survivors Trust, the largest umbrella agency for specialist rape and sexual abuse services in the UK. She says more education is needed in higher education institutions.

“Someone who’s been raped has a higher incidence of getting PTSD than people who’ve been in a war situation.

“Institutions like universities need to be at the forefront of ensuring that everyone there is well educated and understands how to tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus.”

With the increased understanding that Maxted and others are calling for, Aishwarya hopes more survivors will be encouraged to find their voice too.

She said: “I understand why you would feel uncomfortable sharing something personal but I would say don’t feel ashamed or guilty of being a victim.”

If you have been a victim of sexual misconduct or sexual violence, support is available at...