Stella Creasy’s rape threat story highlights the big problem with how we frame sexual harassment

Written by Amy Beecham

Why is it that victims are so often reprimanded for coming forward about sexual harassment?

Labour MP Stella Creasy has revealed her experience of being threatened with gang-rape amid a campaign of sexual harassment while studying at the University of Cambridge.

In an interview with the broadcaster and former Labour MP Gloria De Piero for GB News, Creasy described how she was targeted by a group of male students while running for a student council role in the mid-1990s.

“I’ll never forget the night that I was in a room with them all and they threatened to gang-rape me, let alone the posters that they put up around the college when I had the temerity to stand for a position in the student union, telling people not to vote for me because of who I’d slept with,” she said. 

Sexual harassment in higher education is all too common an experience. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that between March 2018 and March 2020, students in England and Wales were over three times more likely than average to have experienced sexual assault.

The types of behaviour cited by students range from inappropriate comments and catcalling to unwanted touching in a sexual manner, stalking, sexual coercion and assault, and rape.

However, Creasy’s story shines a light on one of the biggest problems with the way we frame sexual harassment: as it somehow being the fault of the victim.

Creasy claimed that she was reprimanded by college authorities instead of action being taken against the men involved, which left her “terrified” of seeing the men who had threatened her at university who have gone on to be doctors, civil servants and “high-flyers”.

“I was held up and I was admonished by the college authorities at the time because they chose to believe the idea that I was probably ‘a wronged woman’,” she said. “And, as I say, it took public humiliation, and posters, and finally other people coming forward, and me collating the evidence – of all the notes, the spitting in my room, the rubbish that was thrown at me, the sexual abuse and harassment if I tried to walk into the bar, that came from this group of young men.”

A Cambridge University spokesperson said they were “extremely sorry to hear of the horrific ordeal” and have taken significant steps in recent years to provide support for victims.

Her experience proves that there is still such a long way to go for women to come forward safely and without shame about abuse they have experienced.

This year, sexual crimes including rape, stalking, spiking and domestic abuse have reached a record high in England and Wales. But while crimes have increased, the number of completed rape prosecutions plummeted to just 1,557 in the 2020-2021 period.

“Longest-ever” delays are thought to be to blame for almost two-thirds of adult rape investigations being dropped, but there remain huge attitudinal barriers, too.

The culture of sexism and misogyny within British politics continues to fall under scrutiny. Up to 56 MPs have been accused of sexual misconduct and an MP has resigned after admitting to watching pornography in the House of Commons. 

Creasy is a prominent campaigner for women’s rights, including granting mothers the resources to run for parliament. Despite admitting to having experienced sexual harassment “all my life”, Creasy shared that now, in her mid-40s, is “the first time” she’d felt willing to talk about it. 

However, addressing women with similar experiences, and those in parliament, she said: “You will find allies, you will find those of us prepared to stand with you because we know what it’s like, we know how hard it is and we know the impact it can have on you.”

In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales.

Images: Getty

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