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19th October 2017

Are student societies safe from sexual assault?

Multiple women’s allegations of sexual assault against a society figure raise questions about student safety

Since 2005, at least six women have alleged sexual assault claims against an ex-committee member of the Speleology society.

The current society president, Sahil Maharaj, told The Mancunion that “quite a few women went to Greater Manchester Police” concerning the allegations against Adam Sharples, who used to be the Webmaster for the society.

Due to the fact “people were saying they felt uncomfortable” around Adam after the allegations came to light, the committee banned him in a unanimous blind vote in 2016. However, he has reportedly continued to harass members.

One woman, who was also a member of the Speleology society, described her experience on a society field trip to The Mancunion. While they slept in adjacent sleeping bags, Adam allegedly woke the woman up three times by groping her inside her sleeping bag.

The woman reached out to the Cumbria Police concerning the alleged assaults. Cumbria Police informed her that not enough victims had come forward in Cumbria to establish a modus operandi (MO) to open a case.

“This definitely should not have been an issue for so long,” president Sahil acknowledged to The Mancunion.

He continued however that “when I joined the club three years ago, I quite admired him at the time.” The figure was an experienced hobbyist and previously led sessions for the society. Sahil went on to say that some allegations had already been made at the time, but these were commonly dismissed as “rumours.”

When Sahil was elected as president last year, he was made aware of more recent complaints, which prompted a committee investigation. Findings were presented at the committee meeting where the figure was voted out.

After the vote, the banned society member “did not take the decision well. He stated that he would remain in the club. He began showing up at our weekly socials, he began showing up at our weekends away.

“Naturally this made people uncomfortable. We had to take further steps.”

The ex-club figure was barred from the pub where the society held regular socials, but began to “show up and stand outside the pub, which is fairly anti-social behaviour. There were people that would just leave our socials in tears because of him.”

Adam also allegedly created fake accounts on Facebook to stalk the club on weekend trips.

Speaking to The Mancunion, Adam Sharples addressed allegations of sexual assault as “demonstrably false statements… made as degrading and personal as possible.”

After multiple women contacted the Greater Manchester Police regarding the alleged assaults, they began receiving messages from him.

One of these women, who has a PhD in feminist philosophy, said that these messages were “cause for alarm — his general disregard for consent; victim-blaming mentality.”

The female society member who tried to open a case with the Cumbria Police is keen to collaborate with accusers in Manchester to potentially open a case with the Greater Manchester Police.

She expressed concern that women who suddenly dropped out of the club over the years could have experienced similar incidences of assault but chose to quit their hobby rather than report them.

She further discussed the fear of being judged when reporting sexual assault, but told The Mancunion that she hopes the #MeToo social media campaign — which 12 million women have participated in in the past week — will encourage more victims to feel confident in reporting crimes.

The Students’ Union advises students to take advantage of available support systems. In a written statement to The Mancunion, they wrote: “the Student’s Union Activities Department has a team of staff who support every category of society, these coordinators are available to offer students support, advice and help with any issues that may arise.

“If you are currently feeling at risk, if you have been the victim or know someone who has, we encourage you to come and seek advice from the Student’s Union advice service.”

The Students’ Union also emphasised existing controls to ensure societies are safe environments for students.

“If a society wishes to hold an event, a risk assessment must be completed and the relevant society coordinator must be made aware of the nature of the event.”

However, it is unclear whether event risk assessments sufficiently consider sexual assault as a hazard. In the Student’s Union sample risk assessment form, the activity “Crowds/Audience safety” conduces the hazards “Crushing, Anti-social behaviour, Gate crashers” — and does not consider sexual crime.

Consent workshops were also made newly available for students at the University of Manchester this September, but these workshops were not compulsory and sign-up was required as numbers were capped.

When asked by The Mancunion about implementation of mandatory consent workshops, the Students’ Union responded: “This is a great idea. We would encourage any students interested in this type of workshop to speak to the Student Exec officers.”

Deej Malik-Johnson, Campaigns and Citizenship Officer, called every case of sexual assault “really troubling.” He clarified that while consent workshops started with a limited roll-out this year at the University, they are still figuring out how best to apply the workshops in the future.

As it stands, Oxford University is the only university in the UK to include compulsory consent workshops in their freshers’ program.

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