“From a young age, the people we most want to confide in are our friends – then somehow that starts to change into worrying about what they will say if we do,” says Norah Al-Ani, Director of the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre.

What they need to hear more than anything is that you believe them, and it’s not their fault

Norah Al-Ani, Director of the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre

Her comment came as the University of Cambridge released figures showing that fears about friends’ reactions were among the main reasons Cambridge staff and students chose not to report sexual misconduct officially.

Today a film featuring Al-Ani giving staff and students advice on what to say and do when a friend confides in them was launched on the Breaking the Silence website.

She says: “What they need to hear more than anything is that you believe them, and it’s not their fault.”

To accompany the film, a new guide to handling disclosures is now available on the website.

More than a quarter (26%) of victims reported without identifying themselves or their perpetrator as they feared a backlash from friends, according to the first annual figures from the University's anonymous reporting tool, launched in May last year.

The tool is available on the Breaking the Silence website.

A Cambridge student recently told her story in Varsity describing the impact of a negative reaction to her disclosure of sexual assault. “These kinds of ‘bad’ responses catch me off guard,” she said, “turning a conversation I am prepared and ready to have into a situation in which I am deeply uncomfortable.”

What a friend needs to hear

In it, Al-Ani says: “If a friend, or somebody close to you, tells you that they’ve been a victim of sexual violence, it can be a difficult thing to hear. It can be stressful, you might feel that you have to immediately resolve the issue for them or indeed you may have conflicting views if you know the person who’s perpetrated the harassment. 

“Let them know that you care, that the experience has not changed who they are or how you feel about them,” she continues.

“What they need to hear more than anything is that you believe them. If they think that you disbelieve them, they may never tell anyone again.

“Remember to say it’s not their fault. Nothing they have done or not done has resulted in the experience they have been through.”

She emphasises the need to help survivors “take back control” and empower them to make their own choices on how they wish the misconduct to be handled.

Lastly, she reminds staff and students: “As a supporter, you must remember to take your needs seriously. You are not a miracle worker. If you need to, take a supporter’s break and get some support for yourself."

As one Cambridge student who had been sexually assaulted advised in Varsity: “Provide a gentle, calm and encouraging space for the speaker to share what they wish to share, in their own words, and you can’t go too far wrong.”

Members of the Cambridge community are also showing solidarity with victims by sharing Breaking the Silence social media cover and profile images saying “Three little words can change a survivor’s experience: I believe you”.

More than 240 reports have been made in the 12 months since the tool was launched, compared with fewer than ten formal reports in the same period. 

Staff and students can report online at www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk.

Leading culture change

Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope re-affirmed his commitment to the campaign in response to questions about unacceptable behaviour at Cambridge at a meeting with students on Tuesday.

Following a question on alcohol-related activities of some student groups, he said: “We’ve seen really sad cases in the past where people have been injured, deeply damaged, harassed, or assaulted - this is not acceptable. We know we can deal with the results through the disciplinary process and the work of Breaking the Silence but we need to tackle the underlying behaviour.”

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education Professor Graham Virgo added: “We need to try to think constructively about what needs to be done to change a culture that allows this.” He called for societies to be non-gendered and not based on alcohol consumption.

Secretary to the Senior Tutors’ Committee Dr Mark Wormald echoed these comments, saying: “There is no place for any form of harassment at the University of Cambridge. The University is dedicated to creating and maintaining a safe, welcoming, inclusive and diverse community that nurtures a culture of mutual respect and consideration.

“We are aware of a number of serious allegations that have not been reported to the University or Colleges. We would strongly urge people to come forward with any concerns, and speak to their College or the central Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals so these can be subject to immediate and thorough investigation.”

Breaking the Silence is aimed at embedding a zero tolerance culture to all forms of harassment at Cambridge. Its work focuses on improving the preventing, response, support and investigation of all instances of harassment, and enabling staff and students to make disclosures without fear of reprisal.

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