Words By Catherine Phillips
Layla met Will on a night out. He seemed nice and mentioned they had lots of friends in common.
“I had seen him out before but never really talked to him properly,” Layla said. “He was acting normally as far as I could tell. I keep going over and over it in my head as to what I could’ve done differently or whether I should’ve realised something was up or if I did something to make him like he was.”
That night at at the bar Will had seemed upset and asked Layla if they could talk away from his friends.
“I thought his friends had done something to upset him so I agreed and we walked towards the back of the club near the toilets,” continues Layla.
Will then pushed Layla into the toilets and stopped her when she tried to leave. Layla remembers feeling “confused” and “uncomfortable”, which quickly turned to “panic” when Will locked the door.
What happened next happened very quickly. Will began running his hands all over Layla’s body, she told him to stop and tried to push him away.
“I don’t know if I would call it rape because he didn’t actually come. He was interrupted by the bar staff knocking on the door saying only one person was allowed in the toilets at a time,” says Layla. “He had his hand over my mouth and said we would be out in a minute. He pushed me to the floor, unlocked the door and went back out.”
The above dialogue is part of a script that is read out to students taking part in The Intervention initiative, which is a new programme that has just been piloted to 3rd year law students at the University of the West of England.
It is a free resource with an education toolkit to be used by universities and colleges across the country for the prevention of sexual coercion and domestic abuse in university settings. It takes a positive approach, encouraging all students to be active bystanders, which means firstly recognising sexual and domestic violence or problematic behaviour when they witness it and secondly, standing up against it.
“Layla’s script is based on real events, which she was brave enough to share with us for use in the programme.” Says Dr Fenton. “For me it demonstrates so acutely the need for a programme like this and when we tell the students who have listened to it that it was true, they are suitably shocked and appalled not only at the way Layla blames herself but at the way that victim blaming helps to support rape culture.”
Dr Rachel Fenton is the programme leader. She’s been teaching gender and law for twenty years and has cultivated a long-term interest in violence against women.
“The most important thing to me was to ensure we got the programme right,” says Dr Fenton. “To do that we involved the students right from the start. We conducted research and looked at the evidence of the ‘bystander theory’ to ensure it was theoretically sound. There is hunger and an openness about these issues, however if you get it wrong you can increase violence against women.”
The ‘bystander theory’ puts students on the outside of the situation, which is why scripts are used, so they don’t identify with either the victim or the perpetrator. It’s an inclusive, empowering environment for both sexes.
“You can’t talk about these issues to women alone,” says Dr Fenton. “We want to empower everyone to stand up against violence in their community so we had to think hard about how we wanted the programme to come across to men and women.”
The eight-week programme teaches students the necessary communication and leadership skills to intervene effectively and safely, and to change the social norm when it comes to rape culture and rape myths.
“We are currently operating in a supportive rape culture that is more the norm. If you can correct people’s social norms then you have the capacity to generate real change,” says Dr Fenton. “The programme tackles the culture where it’s ok to shut down women and degrade them with derogatory sexist language. We’re not saying that a man that calls a woman a slag is capable of rape but we are saying that this low level ‘rape scaffolding’ supports an abusive culture.”
Funding was secured to run the pilot, which is in the process of being evaluated.
“The students really get it,” says Dr Fenton. “The scripts and content are at their level and in their daily lives. They come away enlightened and emboldened to challenge sexual stereotypes or negative behaviour. It’s incredible to see.”
The team are in the process of applying for further funding to roll out the programme across the University of the West of England, however Dr Fenton’s ambitions are much greater.
“My ultimate aim would be that you can’t graduate any course at any university without doing this programme. Think about it – it could change the culture of a generation. Empowering women like Layla and making men like Will accountable not only to themselves, but also to those around them.”