Hundreds of stories of sexual assault at colleges shared on Instagram

As students return to college classes around the world, hundreds are sharing stories of alleged campus sexual assaults on Instagram. Anonymous accounts have been set up at more than two dozen academic institutions in the United States, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and they’re being flooded with student allegations of rape, harassment, stalking, and other forms of sexual abuse by fellow students.

“Our goal is to expose the reality of sexual abuse at our university as well as empower survivors to share their stories anonymously and safely,” read the first post on St. Andrews Survivors, an account run by current and former students at the Scottish university. Since July 2, it has published over 130 accounts of sexual assault at the University of St. Andrews, the prestigious college where Prince William met Kate Middleton.

“Once at the house he offered me a glass of water, which I drank. We walked around the house a little chatting about nothing in particular when I started to get dizzy. He told me I should sit down so we went upstairs and he pushed me on his bed and started removing my clothes. I said no over and over but he kept going. Then I realized how weak and dizzy I had been feeling and I couldn’t really fight back. He raped me both vaginally and anally,” one allegation posted by St. Andrews Survivors said.

On July 4, a similar account at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, called CWRU Survivors, posted its first story of alleged sexual misconduct on campus. Just 25 days later, it said it had shared over 400 allegations made by current and former students.

“The past few weeks have brought to light a myriad of horrifying instances of sexual misconduct at Case Western Reserve University,” CRWU Survivors said in an open letter to the college posted on July 29. “A massive cultural change about how the CWRU community views consent, accountability, and respect for others is integral in combatting the prevalence of sexual violence at Case Western Reserve University,” the statement said.

“We have followed the posts on the @cwrusurvivors account and feel profound sympathy for those who have suffered the horrific violation of sexual assault and its devastating psychological effects,” Case Western Reserve University said in a statement to CBS News. The college said it was expanding some of its support and education programs, and the issue of sexual violence was being examined by a student-led task force looking at multiple issues on campus.

“While we have significantly expanded and strengthened our education and prevention programs in recent years, we also recognize that ending sexual harassment and violence requires that we continually assess and refine our efforts,” the university said.

“It wasn’t just a few of us.”

Anonymous survivor Instagram accounts went live at dozens of universities in the U.S. over the summer, including American University, Bard College, UC Berkeley, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, George Washington University, Gettysburg, Northwestern, Rollins, Tulane, the University of Alabama, the University of Texas at Austin, Vassar, Washington University, and Wesleyan.

In Scotland, similar accounts were created at St. Andrews, Edinburgh University, Robert Gordon University, Stirling University, and the University of Aberdeen. In England, accounts were created at the universities of Durham and Lincoln. In Northern Ireland, an account was created at Queens University Belfast.

Over 23% of undergraduate female students and 5.4% of 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,” Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, 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.

All of the account administrators that CBS News spoke to say they were survivors themselves.

“We want to try and raise awareness of the intricacies of sexual assault, because often it’s painted as something that’s very black and white,” said the founder of the Durham University Survivors Instagram account at northeast England’s Durham University. “Our experiences of sexual assault were a lot less black and white than that.”

“We really felt that we needed to show not just the school, but our fellow classmates and campus community members that we really did have our stories to share and that it wasn’t just a few of us,” said a female student who co-founded Gettysburg Survivors with another student.

“We were both shocked to see just the prevalence of it and the wide range of it on our campus that even we weren’t aware of,” she said.

“There’s structural, systemic violence at play”

The outpouring of personal stories of sexual assault echoes the outpouring of experiences of sexual violence shared on social media in 2017, when the #MeToo hashtag went viral. But one of the admins of the Voices of Brown account told CBS News there are important differences.

“We needed to feel that collective pain — that of knowing survivors’ and perpetrators’ names, knowing many of them personally, working with them — in order to begin better empathizing with the issue of sexual violence as a society,” she said of the #MeToo movement.

“But that communal learning/growth instigated by #MeToo also came at the expense of many individuals’ privacy, mental health, and former support systems.”

She said she was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and social media accounts anonymously sharing stories of racism at institutions.

“The anonymity factor allows more people to freely contribute their stories, which means more stories are ultimately being shared with the public; and the sheer number of stories we are all collecting on our accounts is helping our communities understand that this isn’t about a few instances here and there — there’s structural, systemic violence at play and we need to address it together.”

“We’re the future.”

“We’re trying to give incoming students and prospective students a more realistic image of what they’re getting into,” said the co-founder of Gettysburg Survivors.

“I think a lot of people come into this school with the naive expectation that the school is going to fight for you no matter what. If somebody hurts you, they will stand up for you. And that’s simply not been the case for so many of us that we’re trying to not necessarily scare them, but give them this knowledge so that they know to be wary of these situations and understand that they’re not alone — that if something happens to them, it’s not their fault. That this is a systemic issue that is campus wide. That it’s not just you.”

Gettysburg College had not responded to CBS News’ request for comment at the time of writing.

Over the past few months, the administrators of university survivor accounts from both sides of the Atlantic have connected with one another, exchanging ideas and advice and organizing for change, both on individual campuses and more broadly.

“We’re working with all of the other U.K. pages to try and slowly, slowly design something that we can lobby Parliament on and hopefully find a way of getting some legislation passed that makes… very grassroots, bottom-up level consent education necessary,” the founder of Durham Survivors told CBS News.

At Brown, an account administrator says they have already helped the school’s crew team — which approached them — to create a program to educate members about toxic masculinity and make its parties safer. Alongside other initiatives, they’re now working to make that program accessible to other groups that might be interested.

“Given how organized and developed this movement has become, it’s definitely a lot more credible and purposed now,” said the Gettysburg Survivors founder. “It’s definitely something that you don’t want to underestimate. Because we are just college kids, but in the larger scheme of things, we’re the future.”

If you’re in the United States and need help and it’s 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.

© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up