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Students join forces to fight campus sexual assault as Instagram accounts reveal disturbing pattern

Stories of sex assault at colleges shared on Instagram
Stories of sex assault at colleges shared on ... 05:18

London — Students at universities in the U.S. and the U.K. have launched an international coalition to fight sexual violence on college campuses after dozens of independent, anonymous Instagram accounts emerged over the summer, sharing thousands of allegations of sexual assault.

The University Survivors Movement, launched at the end of November, includes members from at least 33 universities on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The truth is that you are not alone in your pain. You are not alone in the injustices you have survived. The truth is that your trauma is shared by millions, that your community did fail you, and that your administration didn't care," the group said in a statement addressing survivors of campus sexual assault on Instagram. "But the truth is also that this epidemic of violence and abuse can end."

"I was trying to get away from him"

In July and August, dozens of anonymous Instagram accounts appeared at universities in the U.S. and the U.K. sharing stories of sexual assaults on college campuses that had been submitted to the accounts anonymously.

Accounts including "Durham Survivors," at Durham University in England, said that they wanted to show the scale of the problem on campus, as well as give survivors a safe place to be heard and believed.

"At the end of my first year at Durham, I went on a night out with friends. A guy came over and was waiting to dance with me, I was not interested in him but he managed to back me into a corner and was putting his hands up my skirt and touching me. The worst bit was I was trying to get away from him (he was much bigger than me), and when I did there was a group of guys who saw and were laughing," read one allegation posted to the Durham Survivors account.

"We value and welcome the work of the Durham Survivors group in contributing to our shared objective of addressing sexual misconduct and violence," Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) at Durham University, Jeremy Cook, said in a statement to CBS News. "We are working with the group to ensure that all survivors understand how they can disclose or report incidents and access support."

Similar accounts were created at other universities in England, including at Lincoln and Lancaster. In Scotland, accounts were created at St. Andrew's University, Edinburgh University, Robert Gordon University, Stirling University, and the University of Aberdeen. In Northern Ireland, an account was created at Queens University Belfast.

In the United States, accounts were created at universities including Arizona State University, Bard College, UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, George Washington University, Gettysburg, Northwestern, Rollins, Tulane, the University of Alabama, the University of Texas at Austin, Vassar, Washington University, and Wesleyan.

"This movement highlights how sexual violence is not prevalent on just one campus, but on all of them," a student who runs the account at Colgate University in upstate New York told CBS News about the new organization, of which not all Survivor accounts are members. "It also highlights how this is a movement for all campuses, and by uniting, we can create more positive and effective change."

"The University stands with survivors of sexual violence in all forms, and we applaud our students in their efforts to raise awareness about this serious issue," Colgate University said in a statement to CBS News. "We are also proud of the students' work to help connect individuals with support services on campus. For this, we thank the students, and pledge to continue the work of prevention and providing survivor-centric support on campus."

Campus sexual assault "impacts pretty much everyone"

About 1 in 4 undergraduate female students and 1 in 15 undergraduate males in the United States experience sexual assault or rape through physical force, incapacitation, or violence while they're in college, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). In the U.K., 75% of respondents to a 2019 survey conducted by the National Union of Students said they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact while on campus.

"It is something that's very widespread on campus that impacts pretty much everyone, either directly or through a friend," RAINN president Scott Berkowitz told CBS News.

Yet levels of reporting by college students to law enforcement are lower than that of the wider community, according to RAINN.

"In general, reporting rates are much lower when the perpetrator is someone that the victim knows, and because most campus assaults fall into that category and often grow out of social situations, the reporting rate for campus assaults is quite low," Berkowitz said.

Survivors also sometimes choose not to tell their universities about assaults because they fear they won't be believed, or that they will go through a traumatic investigation process that will not ultimately yield a positive outcome.

"I look at my youngest sister, the only woman in my immediate family who hasn't suffered sexual violence, and hope that the University Survivors Movement spurs institutional and legislative changes which will shield her from sexual violence. Let us who spearhead this movement be the last generation of campus survivors," said a student who runs the survivor account at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Together we will amplify the demands of campus survivors"

As students were creating and managing survivor Instagram accounts at different universities, they began getting in touch with one another, offering support or asking for advice.

"We have found a lot of similarities in the ways that our administrations fail us," one of the students who runs the account at Gettysburg College told CBS News. "This is indicative of a larger issue that encompasses all of higher education, and will thus require a unified effort."

She said the University Survivors Movement will seek to address the issue on a national level in the United States, either in Congress or through the Department of Education.

"Universities are ultimately for-profit institutions. They deny the existence of problems which reflect poorly on them for the sake of preserving their reputations and thereby keeping their enrollment numbers high," the student who runs the survivor Instagram account at Washington University said.

"By joining forces with other survivor story-sharing platforms across the world, university survivors accounts demand widespread acknowledgement of the pandemic of campus sexual violence. Together we will amplify the demands of campus survivors until their voices no longer fall upon deaf ears."

If you're in the United States and need help and it's an emergency, call 911. Otherwise call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or reach out online at online.rainn.org. If you're in the United Kingdom and it's an emergency, call 999. Otherwise, you can chat or find your local rape crisis center at rapecrisis.org.uk.

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