Liberated by anonymity, students across the country are sharing stories of sexual assault online – but how effective are these spaces in helping survivors overcome their trauma and addressing systemic misogyny?
Liberated by anonymity, students across the country are sharing stories of sexual assault online – but just how effective are these spaces in helping survivors overcome their trauma and addressing systemic misogyny?
“I went to a festival when I was 16, got separated from my friends, and a much older guy started grinding on me and touching me up […] was this assault?”, reads a recent post from university ‘confession’ page, Leedsfess. “Another time, I hooked up with someone and they started taking my pants off, but I wanted to take it slower so told him to wait and he wouldn’t […] was this assault?”
Esme*, 19, who submitted this post, is a student from the University of Leeds. She says she sent in the ‘confession’ because she “wasn’t sure” if her experiences truly qualified as sexual assault – which, of course, they do. “I wanted to anonymously get other people’s views on it,” she says. “I had felt really ashamed of these experiences, and only thought of myself as being at fault, so hadn’t considered they might be sexual assault until I heard loads of stories following the news about Sarah Everard.”
Leedsfess is one of many university ‘confession’ pages in the UK. There are pages for students from almost every major university city in the country – there’s Brumfess, Sheffessions, and UOMLove, to name a few – with most boasting tens of thousands of likes. Usually, they’re home to niche memes and posts professing love for library crushes. But more recently, they’ve become a place for students to share intensely personal stories under the liberating guise of total anonymity.
The Leedsfess admin team say they’ve seen a big uptick in posts pertaining to sexual assault and harassment since the death of Sarah Everard: “It’s hard to say by how much, but I reckon there’s at least double the normal amount,” one of the team tells me.
Nadiya*, 20, is a student at the University of Warwick. She also sent in an anonymous post to her University’s confession page – WarwickFessions – detailing her experience of having her drink spiked. “It was an SU (Student Union) night where I had gone with a few friends, and I had my drink drugged. After suspecting this the next day, I went to a medical centre to get it tested, and when the results came back I planned to address it with the SU,” she tells me. “In the end I was too scared to take it further, but I did write on the confession page.”
Cambridge student Liv*, age 20, submitted a post to Camfess speaking out about her University’s damaging approach to dealing with instances of assault and harassment. “Is anyone else angry at the outcome of sexual assault and harassment claims that are dealt with at a uni level?” the post begins. “I’m not allowed to talk about it in order to protect his privacy […] It’s like they inherently don’t believe what we say.” Liv tells me that the post refers to her experience of reporting an incident of assault six months ago. She says that while the incident itself was dealt with sufficiently, the University urged her to refrain from speaking out about it afterwards.
“They’re big on the whole privacy thing: You can’t talk about this, you can’t tell any of your friends,” she explains, recalling what she was told after she approached staff about her experience. “They did say you can tell a couple of people if you really, really need to, but it was still a bit shit. For the past six months, I’ve been like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do what you want, I’ll not tell anyone, I’ll not ruin the University’s reputation.’” Wanting to avoid anything that might get her in trouble, Camfess provided Liv with the opportunity to vent freely, while retaining her anonymity.
The rise in these sorts of posts also follows the harrowing but perhaps unsurprising news that 97 per cent of 18 to 24-year old women have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives. The figures for LGBTQ+ people are equally depressing, with 70 per cent experiencing sexual harassment at work and 47 per cent of trans people expected to encounter sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. It is this endemic culture of sexism and misogyny that often makes victims too scared to speak out: in fact, only 15 per cent of victims of sexual violence report them to the police.
This is where university confession pages could offer a safe space for people to speak about sexual assault. Both Esme and Liv found sharing their stories anonymously to be hugely beneficial. For Liv, the anonymity afforded to her by Camfess enabled her to speak openly about her dealings with the University. “The whole process felt pretty cathartic,” she tells me. “I was not expecting such a supportive response from people.”
Esme says that the comments she received on her post helped her come to terms with the experience. “People told me that this was sexual assault,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of self-doubt, so it validated my experience and confirmed to me that what happened was not my fault and was not okay.”
Although they’re robustly moderated and largely supportive environments, these confession pages don’t exist in vacuums. They do still exist within a toxic, sexist culture – as Nadiya sadly found out firsthand. While she says that many of the students who commented on her post were “very sympathetic”, she adds that several WarwickFessions submissions published in response to her post claimed that her story “was a lie or exaggerated”.
The government recently announced that misogyny will now be recorded as a hate crime in England and Wales – but it’s difficult to celebrate this news wholeheartedly, given the fact that only 1.7 per cent of reported rapes are prosecuted in England and Wales. What needs to change for a lasting impact? A lot, as it stands: better education, political reform, men taking accountability, and a seismic cultural shift in the way we talk about sexual assault.
Naturally, this won’t happen overnight. So, although posting on these pages is by no means a foolproof way of getting closure or support, confession pages can offer a valuable outlet for student survivors of assault while we fight for systemic change.
Esme also points out that, encouragingly, a lot of these posts are shifting away from framing assault as a random, isolated, or inevitable event, and towards understanding it as a direct consequence of the actions of men. “Recent posts have called out men for targeting really drunk girls and also for being bystanders,” she says. “It’s not enough to talk about the experiences of women. We need to also look at what men have done.”
There’s no reason why these pages can’t function dually: as both a tool for survivors and as a means of educating the ignorant. Their huge followings, polyvocal style, and the freedom granted to users through anonymity makes them an apt vehicle for driving things forward – even if they change just one person’s perspective.
As Esme points out, what’s promising is that among all these outpourings of grief and trauma from women, there are also the odd posts from men, too: men in conversation with each other, looking to learn how to do better; men calling on other men to take a stand; men expressing solidarity and support for their female peers.
“Anonymous platforms like LeedsFess reach men as well women,” she surmises. “So hopefully these posts will make them consider their behaviour — and change it.”
*Name changed to protect anonymity
Follow Serena Smith on Twitter.