‘A man assaulted me last year and is still making life difficult for me in college’

Tell Me About It: He is involved in club affairs, and it is making me not want to participate

PROBLEM: I’m going back to college next week, but dreading returning to my committee role in a club I love all because of someone who isn’t even in the college anymore.

A committee member from last year is still pulling the strings of the club behind the scenes, making life difficult for me.

This is a man who I dated until he assaulted me last year. I never told anyone on the committee about this, but he still treated me terribly in meetings (on Zoom) and they noticed.

He is still pushing into club affairs even though he is no longer in the college and it is making me not want to participate in any event where he might be present (last time I saw him I suffered a panic attack). His friends have also started to act similarly towards me.

It seems so unfair, as I am still in college and being kept from participating in the club because of him. What should I do?

ADVICE: This is a well-worn story: you are the one who has done no wrong and yet you are being scorned and suffering from panic attacks. All colleges now have sexual consent education, most are moving to establishing sexual misconduct policies and the HEA is establishing anonymous reporting tools across the sector this Autumn. This should encourage you to have the confidence to talk about your experience and ensure that you will be validated and believed.

However, it is not as simple as that.

Myths, such as thinking that someone you date cannot assault you, are still widespread and yet we know from research that sexual assault is most often perpetrated by someone close to the victim. We also know that it can take victims a long time to find the courage to report the assault and so there is still time for you to consider doing this. What is very clear from your letter is that you are very traumatised and this needs addressing, as going back to college is likely to re-traumatise you and have a serious impact on your progression through your academic life.

Very often it is possible for some buffer zone to be put between you and the alleged perpetrator while an investigation is under way

When we suffer a trauma, we often have what is known as the fight, flight, freeze or flop response. This means that it is completely normal to freeze and not react when something momentous happens – we often give out to ourselves for not taking action, but this is a valid way to protect ourselves until we are in a safer place. Judging from your panic attacks, you continue to feel unsafe and are very wary of further abuse.

However, you have a right to participate in a club that you love, and are committed to, so before deciding on avoidance as a method of survival, perhaps you might consider some options. You need counselling and support: start with your college’s student counselling service or consider talking to the Student Union’s welfare officer. If this seems too difficult, your local rape crisis centre will offer you expertise and support while you chose what to do next.

All colleges have disciplinary procedures, and you might consider taking some steps in this direction. Most relevant staff have been trained in responding to disclosures of sexual misconduct so you can trust that you will be heard and given time to detail your story in full. Very often it is possible for some buffer zone to be put between you and the alleged perpetrator while an investigation is under way, this means that you will be protected when in college or while doing any college activity.

As you recover your confidence and sense of safety, you may feel supported to report this situation to the relevant authorities

Perhaps your club or society could undergo some consent workshops or/and bystander training – this would alert everyone to the knowledge and research of what constitutes sexual misconduct and on how our communities of people perpetrate, or support, this type of behaviour. All this becomes possible only when you disclose what has happened and your first step is to find someone who can support you. You might ask a friend to come with you to book a counselling appointment or talk to a Chaplain, Security person, Student Union officer, academic or an external service.

No one will force you to take any action, but as you recover your confidence and sense of safety, you may feel supported to report this situation to the relevant authorities. It is not a choice of staying in your committee or of reporting. Your committee needs to address the culture that allowed this to happen and will be all the better for the education it will receive – think of all the future young people who might benefit from this learning. You have a right to participate fully in college and to feel safe and confident in doing so.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, has a goal of freeing Third level institutes from sexual harassment and misconduct and is committed to putting all the necessary supports and procedures in place. Lean on these supports now as your right and begin the road to participating without fear in your education.