Warwick’s non-rape rape scandal

Students have had their lives turned upside down over sick private jokes.

Joanna Williams
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Topics Feminism UK

The Warwick University rape-chat scandal first came to light a year ago. Since then, students have been tried, suspended and reinstated; there have been campus protests, a social-media campaign, an independent review, public apologies, a lawsuit issued against the university, ongoing national news coverage, angry Guardian columns, and a BBC documentary.

It is easy to forget, among all the heat generated, that this is a campus rape scandal that does not involve accusations of either rape or sexual assault. There is no dispute about whether or not sex was consensual: no sexual encounter of any description ever took place. The year-long saga that has engulfed Warwick has been entirely about words.

To start at the beginning: a group of male undergraduates created a private Facebook group chat and used it to trade increasingly vile comments about what they would like to do to their female flatmates and fellow students. The group chat is also said to have included ‘racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and ableist language, as well as claims of paedophilic activity’. It was inevitable that, before long, the private exchange would be made public.

The conversation reads like a competition between overgrown adolescents to see who can be the most provocative and disgusting. Statements such as, ‘sometimes it’s fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls’, are intended to be offensive and, probably, humorous. Indeed, when the group chat was first covered in the media, it was portrayed as ‘rape jokes’. Whether or not we find the line funny, it is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. There is no credible suggestion that the author has ever raped, or planned to rape, one girl, let alone 100.

The comments referring to specific women are equally outrageous. ‘Rape her in the street while everybody watches’, urges one contributor. His friend adds: ‘Rape the whole flat to teach them all a lesson.’ This is an obnoxious, horrible exchange. No one wants to be discussed in such a way. However, although entirely void of humour, it’s still hard to take these comments seriously. Yet they have been, and continue to be, taken very seriously indeed.

The targeted women, angry and aggrieved, described themselves as being the victims of ‘violent’ sexual taunts and claimed the chat had left them feeling unsafe. This is, perhaps, an understandable initial response. But no one at the university challenged this interpretation. No one took the group to one side to reprimand the men and reassure the women. As a result, this view of the women as traumatised and vulnerable was allowed to set the tone for subsequent events.

An internal investigation followed, described as ‘horrendous’ and ‘traumatic’ by one of the women involved. It was led by Warwick’s head of press and media relations, lending weight to claims that the university was most concerned about its image. However traumatic the investigation was for the women, the upshot was that 11 male students were temporarily suspended, with six being banned from campus for periods ranging from one year to life. Once tuition fees and living expenses already paid – as well as the time and cost of starting a degree elsewhere – are taken into account, this is a very severe punishment for an idiotic private exchange.

Two of the male students subject to a 10-year ban appealed and had their punishment reduced to one year. The women argued this left them fearful of seeing the men on campus. Again, rather than the women being reassured that even if they did meet the men concerned they were in no physical danger and would survive the encounter, the off-campus chorus backed the view that the women would be traumatised. In response to student protests, public outrage and a social-media campaign called #ShameOnYouWarwick, the university announced that the two male students would not be returning.

Last week, an independent review criticised Warwick’s handling of the scandal and recommended reforms to improve its handling of sexual violence and misconduct. In turn, the university’s vice-chancellor issued an apology to the women concerned, two of whom are currently suing the university for discrimination and negligence. One woman has spoken out after an administrative mix-up meant she ended up sitting next to a man involved in the case in her final exam. So, this non-rape rape scandal looks set to run and run.

Two assumptions, reinforced by universities, have driven this case forward. The first is that words are violence, meaning there is little difference between having been subject to a sexual assault and having been spoken of in a sexually graphic way. The sexual taunts the women read about themselves were clearly interpreted as ‘violent’ in a way that would inevitably induce trauma from which they would never recover. This blurring of words and actions trivialises the experiences of women who have been raped.

The second assumption is that the university has a duty of care to look after students and keep them not just physically safe, but also protected from words, even words intended only for a private audience. One of the women involved in the case and now suing the university has said: ‘I think that if you are a girl or if you’re a minority, if you’ve been through past traumas, knowing that your university is going to care for you is really important. I think right now Warwick haven’t proven their ability to do that.’ But students are young adults and universities are not in loco parentis. Universities cannot protect people from hearing – or reading – things they may find offensive.

It’s hard not to agree with the conclusion drawn by the independent review into the Warwick scandal: that there had been ‘a profoundly unsatisfactory outcome for almost every single person involved’. The incident, such as it was, should have been dealt with in a couple of hours. Instead, the punishment for the men involved far exceeds the idiocy of engaging in vile online oneupmanship. The university is still making headlines for all the wrong reasons. And the women targeted have come to believe they were victims of some heinous crime that will define not just their time as students, but also the rest of their lives.

Joanna Williams is associate editor at spiked. Her new book, Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars, is out now.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Comments

gershwin gentile

22nd July 2019 at 1:17 pm

Wasn’t it a right of passage (back in the old days) that students would bore the shit out of friends and associates by playing Derek & Clive to death?

Maybe this will provide some context: Susie Boniface (Fleet Street Fox) is a domestic abuser (on record with the police) who referred to the person she abused as twatface.

She is still writing for the Mirror.

mark Roberts

20th July 2019 at 12:56 am

Most new students coming in to university are little more than insecure late-adolescents. This group of – essentially – boys have probably now done more damage to themselves than they had really intended to cause to others. How about some commonsense and understanding on the part of Warwick University?

michael savell

16th July 2019 at 11:38 pm

Hi Claire,The point is that the word of men is worth nothing now so when we get a situation like this we really need some women to bat for us otherwise I see no future in male /female relationships.Iam sure that,in the fullness of time all these cases will be reviewed and hopefully the Guardian etc will get their comeuppance but,until that happens men now need gallant knightesses.Men have been warned for 20 years + by male groups that this would happen and,now it has,they really have only themselves to blame.

Claire D

17th July 2019 at 8:25 am

Yes, we are living through difficult times sex wise. The trouble is, I think, feminists are interested in power primarily ( certainly not ordinary women’s interests ), this means more often than not powerful women are feminists and they want to extend that power ever more etc. In my experience there are plenty of ordinary women who do appreciate men but they are too busy with family life and working to survive to have time for political discussion.
Have courage and avoid hate.

James Knight

16th July 2019 at 6:30 pm

“But students are young adults and universities are not in loco parentis.”

Yes but it seems to be these men who are the ones who have not grown up.

john smith

16th July 2019 at 6:25 pm

What is interesting here is the increased blurring we are seeing between the private and the public world in the light of social media. Acidic and slanderous asides which a person may have formerly made to their best mate which they would never dream of expressing outside that relationship context can can be thrust into the wider consciousness thanks to facebook,twitter et al. and treated as though they were public announcements outside the context of that relationship.We have entered a scary ‘black mirror’ world where the private is the public. Orwell’s spectre of the ‘thought police’ has arrived.Be afraid people.

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 11:33 am

Ms Williams.

I get the impression that pretty much everyone commenting btl loves you, and has great admiration for your work. I know l do. When you were studying, were there ever any instances of young men saying such things?

Ofc not. It’s a different world, and these young men should be …on the receiving end of some kind of weird punishment. What kind of man would think that it’s ok to even think such things as a joke? Absolutely despicable.

It’s becoming increasingly more confusing to be able to …ascertain the truth. But surely what they said constitutes sexual harassment. I know, l know, it’s words. But these are words that are of an entirely different nature…to flirting, for example.

They deserve to be punished in some way, but as you say, it’s pretty disproportionate.
Even so…women shouldn’t have to endure this kind of harassment cosequequece-free.

These guys are supposed to be adults, and to behave in a respectful way towards their sisters.

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 11:41 am

This is ridiculous. Why is this one being modded? And why does a free-speech site, with an ethos of “defending free-speech that offends” have mods anyway?

James Hillier

16th July 2019 at 11:20 am

The young men behaved badly. But the right form of censure for obnoxious words, is social ostracism, until the perpetrator mends his or her ways and makes amends.

As for words creating an unsafe environment: last week Alex Glanfield-Collis was convicted of murdering her partner by plunging a carving knife into his neck. She did this shortly after posting abusive messages in a WhatsApp group called the “The C**t Club”, in which women posted abusive comments about their male partners and encouraged others to do the same.

A Google search using the ‘site’ modifier seems to show that The Guardian has not even reported this case, in which an active participant of a social-media group dedicated to inciting hatred on the basis of sex went out and acted on their violent words about a specific person by murdering that person.

So for being crude and obnoxious, but not actually harming anyone, the young men at Warwick merit endless opprobrium, an end to their academic careers and outpourings of journalistic outrage, totalling thousands of words.

But John Maclean, the victim of Alex Glanfield-Collis, does not even merit a mention.

And the thing is, social media groups run and populated by women and dedicated to the hated of men are not rare. We know there are plenty of other examples. There was a half-hearted expose of one, the Cambridge University page Cuntry Living, in 2015.

But there is never any action taken against such pages. And there is no follow-up research to see if their members are going on to commit acts of violence and domestic abuse.

And even when one one of the members of such a group murders her male partner, the response of many feminists, who were just moments before decrying the same kind of hatred when targeted at women, is silence.

And that silence speaks of, in the most charitable interpretation, rank and unrepentant hypocrisy. In reality, what it is probably saying is that large parts of feminism are a hate movement.

It’s time we listened.

Claire D

16th July 2019 at 9:56 am

There is an underlying problem though Joanna, which is the detrimental and degrading effect of social media on people.
Twenty years ago this ridiculous conversation would have happened behind closed doors (if at all), nobody would have been any the wiser and it would all have been forgotten the next day.
Now, there it is , in black and white, on a device, albeit private but nevertheless keys have been tapped, words have appeared and the record can never be completely eradicated.
Social media is both a voice and, most dangerous of all, it is, to some extent, the ‘ collective unconscious ‘ made manifest. All the young have grown up with this, they live their lives partly through it, to their detriment. Not enough real life experience going on.
Then you have the universities who have lost their independence with their funding from central government, and now have to sell what they offer and are therefore at the mercy of their customers – students + parents.

So, we now have a Higher Education System corrupted at source coupled with an increasingly infantile student body, all too easily influenced by words and images.

Richard Wheatley

16th July 2019 at 11:04 am

Prior to social media one could argue art was “the collective unconsciousness” manifest. So the communications medium has always been available. I would however agree that we have a problem with the ubiquity of social media and its usage.

Claire D

16th July 2019 at 12:05 pm

Someone might argue that, but they would be wrong. The collective unconscious is part of the psyche, Art may be a physical expression of the collective unconscious but that is not what I meant. I meant that social media at times is actually functioning in the same way as an individual’s psyche only at a group level.

Philip Davies

16th July 2019 at 8:07 am

Universities should not get involved in such disputes. If the actions are illegal they should be reported to the police. If they are not illegal, they should leave the hell alone. It’s as simple as that. And as a final matter they should be big enough to completely ignore anything said onTwitter.

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 11:39 am

Perfect way to deal with it. Maybe. Lol. I dunno. Maybe the cops is a bit much too. But maybe not. Perhaps there should be someone at the uni to counsel these men. It’s sexual harassment of a pretty serious nature.

James Hillier

16th July 2019 at 1:01 pm

Normally, I’d agree. In this case, I’m not so sure. The posts mentioned specific individuals and discussed raping them. That merits an investigation, at least. If there was a credible threat of these men carrying out their actions, the university would be well within its rights to bar them from the campus and refer the matter to the police.

From what’s in the article, it sounds like there was no credible threat of actual violence. So the conclusion of the investigation would properly have been that these people are arseh*les, but that being an arseh*le is not against the law, yet. Never the less, I would have expected the university to quietly have words with the young men involved and warn them how close to the edge they were sailing and how revolting decent society finds their behaviour. And if they were ostracised on campus, they’d only have themselves to blame.

That said, I’d like to see the same treatment for members of women’s Facebook and WhatsApp groups dedicated to making abusive posts about men in general and specific men, usually boyfriends. What’s good for one sex ought to be good for the other.

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 1:20 pm

But it’s sexual harassment, and needs to be sanctioned in some way, even if only to sting these men into some kind of realisation that it’s completely unacceptable. I couldn’t care less if they called them fat pogs, or whatever, but this is of a pretty inflammotory and persomal nature. It might be joke to call them four-eyes, but no woman should have to endure this kind of juvenile harassment atbtheir place of learning. Imo.

Claire D

16th July 2019 at 1:48 pm

What you describe is the reasonable common-sense approach but there’s not much of that around right now.
Quite the opposite.

James Hillier

16th July 2019 at 2:05 pm

I never said they should have to put up with it. I said it should be investigated and the young men warned that what they were doing was both morally beyond the pale and extremely and were being watched.

According to the details we have, the posts were made in a closed Facebook group and were later leaked. If they’d been made on university message boards, I agree, that’s the very definition of a hostile environment and the young men should have been sanctioned.

As it is, you would hope that an investigation and the threat of that investigation being re-opened should there be any further complaints, would be enough.

How you feel about feminist social-media groups such as The C*nt Club and C*ntry Living. As I mentioned in my post below, a member of the former recently went from posting derogatory comments about men, to posting abusive comments about her male partner, to murdering her male partner.

Would you also want members of those groups to be sanctioned by their universities for their often hateful comments about men in general and about specific men? Why do you suppose that titles such as The Guardian are more interested in the Warwick case, where vile words led to nothing more than vile thoughts, than in the murder case in which sex-based group hatred, encouraged in a closed social media group, preceded an actual brutal slaying?

Claire D

16th July 2019 at 4:21 pm

James,
just to be clear, my comment about ‘ reasonable common sense ‘ was in response to your comment not Hana’s.
The story about John Maclean’s murder is horrific, The Guardian’s silence is typical and reprehensible, unfortunately feminist ideology rules there, not integrity.

James Hillier

16th July 2019 at 4:30 pm

Hi Claire, Yes, I understood! The murder of John McClean is indeed appalling and the silence of the progressive press in the face of inconvenient facts entirely expected. None of which, of course, implies we should simply shrug our shoulders about what went in a Warwick. The response should be stern but proportionate. But it should be applied equally to all sex-based social-media groups that harass and dox people while promoting sex-based discrimination.

Claire D

17th July 2019 at 7:56 am

Hi James, oh good that’s alright then.
It seems to me this conversation that went on was very like the Count Dankula scenario where some young men turn off the wall obnoxiousness into a game ( I think it’s been going on for thousands of years ). The young women involved were not ‘ targeted ‘, they were never meant to hear, it was a ‘ private ‘ conversation so it was not supposed to be threatening, it was just very silly, bad boy talk.
I agree with you that they should have been ticked off and warned of further serious action if it happened again, and that would have been the end of the matter. It would certainly help if university administrators were more measured and rational in their responses.
As I have said above though, I think there are other serious implications to do with the nature of the beast that is social media.

James Hillier

17th July 2019 at 9:23 am

Unfortunately for them, they chose to do what they did during a culture war, which ruled out any contextualisation and guaranteed zero tolerance. This kind of thing astounds me. How tin-eared can someone be? Don’t they notice what is going on around them? And yes, people have always made edgy, poor-taste jokes and comments. I remember, for instance, Piper Alpha jokes doing the rounds before the tragedy was out of the headlines. That doesn’t mean everyone who told them felt no empathy for men and their families or that they secretly were glad that an oil platform went up in flames and wanted it to happen again. That said, the Warwick comments do sounds a bit weird and creepy, to be frank. I don’t think that makes those boys future rapists. But I do wonder if there’s someone in the group who deserves to be watched.

Claire D

17th July 2019 at 11:02 am

Yes, that’s a good point.

Stephen J

16th July 2019 at 6:45 am

Sounds brilliant to me, go to university, saddle yourself with a lifetime of debt and get accused of being the next worst thing to Hitler.

What an excellent way to begin adult life.

Philip Humphrey

16th July 2019 at 7:14 am

And many of the degrees are simply not worth it, they don’t contain enough useful or relevant knowledge to make you more employable than you were before.

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