I really didn’t want my first blog as NUS Vice President (Further Education) to be about sexual harassment. I didn’t want it to be me pouring my heart out at my computer. I wanted to talk about Further Education policy and funding and start leading one of the toughest fights we’ve ever had. But I won’t wait until my leaving speech to make this point, and I am not going to be embarrassed or ashamed that this is what I am experiencing. I refuse to apologise for this blog.
I have been elected, by the students that I represent in Further Education to deliver on my manifesto in a year that will see some of the most disgraceful attacks on our right to an education in generations. I have been elected to do a job; I want to get stuff done. And it is because of this that I refuse to spend the next year dealing with sexual harassment in the student movement and focusing the time and energy I should be devoting to fighting regressive government policies on protecting myself.
Since winning my election I should have been celebrating. I should have been getting my head down and getting on with my job. I should have been the happiest person in the student movement, having been given an opportunity to do the job that I love and fight for what we believe in. But I haven’t been allowed to do that.
I have spent the last few weeks dealing with dozens of cases of sexual harassment, where officers and students have approached me and expected me to have sex with them because “they elected me” or “they pay my wages”. I have been challenging behaviour and views that should not even exist in the world in the 21st century, let alone the student movement.
I said in my election speech that I was proud to be a feminist. And I am. Being a feminist is about having the right to choose. Having the right not to be owned by anybody. Having the right to be myself without fear of being harassed or judged because of it. It means that I can choose to wear make up and wear whatever clothes I like without fear of being assaulted or sexually harassed.
There are people who think that this makes me an “angry feminist” or that I am a “man-hater”. There are people who tell me that I am “asking for the attention” because of the way I dress or behave, or because I wear make up. There are people who say that if I refuse to have sex with them or their friends then I am “frigid” and that if I stand up for my rights then I am “fierce”. And there will always be people who explain this behaviour away as “banter”. None of these things are acceptable, I am a woman. And I am doing my job.
But this blog isn’t just about me. If this is happening to our national officers (and I am certainly not the first) then this is happening to our student officers in our unions and students on our campuses. And if that’s the case, then why are we surprised that only 4 out of 18 candidates for Full Time Officer positions at NUS National Conference were women, and that none of those were for President? Why are we surprised that only 1 in 10 union presidents are women? Why do we insist that “sexism is a thing of the past” and “we don’t need feminism anymore”? Sexism is not going away, and if this isn’t evidence that we don’t need a strong women’s campaign in NUS and a women’s officer in every students’ union then I don’t know what is.
We say that this movement is all-encompassing, accessible and for everyone, but I refuse to accept that it is one that will be a home to misogyny and sexism. That because I am a woman I should just accept that this is the way I will be treated, or that I should be flattered to be getting so much attention. It is never acceptable to expect a woman to have sex with you. It is never acceptable to tell someone the only reason they have their job is because people want to have sex with them, and it is never acceptable not to take no as an answer.
I’m writing this blog to make it clear that NUS does have a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment and that it will be acted upon. I shouldn’t have to write this blog, but I am. Because I won’t let officers and students across the country experience what I, and other NEC members have had to face.
I want to challenge your perception about what sexism is, because it’s changing to become all the things I’ve experienced, as well as everything we’ve been experiencing for generations. I want you to challenge sexism wherever you see it, because this is what sexism looks like now, in our unions, our institutions and in our lives. And no one deserves to experience it.
If you want to help put an end to this behaviour, please implement the Zero Tolerance policy through your Union's democratic structures. You can find more information about it on NUS Connect or through the NUS Women's campaign.
If you experience this behaviour and need help to make sure it is addressed, or you just want someone to talk to; please get in touch with me
or any NUS officer who will support you.
Vice President-Elect (Further Education)