Last Friday, I was one of the 60 or so students dressed in black and standing outside the UL at 2pm, staring solemnly ahead instead of smiling for the photo, and thinking about the campaign’s motivations and aims.
Inspired by the #TimesUp movement announced at the new year which was supported by hundreds of actresses and saw many of these actresses wear black at the Golden Globes, the Cambridge University edition was designed to stand in support of the international movement, raise awareness and funds for national and local causes such as the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre, and show solidarity with survivors of sexual assault.
The reaction to such campaigns is understandably mixed. The international campaign in which actresses took activists as their ‘date’ has been described by some as being performative or hypocritical as some celebrities pledge their support and then continue to work alongside known harassers in the industry, while others may see smaller campaigns such as the Cambridge one as ineffectual, or detrimental to larger-scale efforts like the Breaking the Silence campaign. It requires very little effort from participants, which is a good thing in terms of amassing support on a wider scale – but if the price of participating is so low, how much long-term support or commitment can we really infer from those who turned up? Why join in with a campaign like this, if that is the case? Does it really achieve anything, or is it just a way of making yourself and the university look good?
I would argue there is absolutely a point to #TimesUpCambridge and all similar campaigns, despite the criticism. Perhaps, yes, there are those who participate simply as a performative gesture, an activity to make them look good for a cause which is popular at the time, but the point in these campaigns goes far beyond the motivations of one individual: they are a collective demonstration of solidarity and above all, awareness. The crowd of people becomes more powerful with every person who aligns themselves with it, no matter their motivation. The more times the same message is said, whether by the same campaign or by different ones, the more exposure the topic will get, and the more normalised it will become to talk about these difficulties and to speak up against the perpetrators. I have two younger sisters and a younger brother, none of whom have started university or a job, and so have been relatively safe from the issues of workplace harassment. I hope that for them, growing up in a time when the discussion about sexual assault and objectification is becoming more and more prevalent through so many voices and events, this movement will lead to an even safer future.
The campaign on its own, however, is not enough. It is not enough to wear black for one day to show your solidarity, click ‘like’ on a Facebook page, donate some money, and think the work is done. The real work behind #TimesUp and other similar movements is the everyday grind which must take place behind the publicity moments. It is about changing mindsets worldwide and acting mindfully around those you associate with – something which requires a lot more commitment, and a lot more patience. No amount of fundraising for charities, nor black-clad lecture halls, can change the sexism and objectifying mindset which is ingrained in society; to tackle the cause requires much more awareness-raising still, as well as real justice for those already affected in the past to deter future perpetrators. In Cambridge specifically, it is about cutting known perpetrators of assault out of friendship groups, supporting victims rather than blaming them, and creating safe spaces for survivors to access the tools they need. These tools need to be accessed without the kinds of bureaucracy and endless question-asking we are accustomed to finding in institutions such as a University, and they need to be given freely, without judgement.
The day for wearing black for #TimesUpCambridge may have passed – but the days, months and years of showing meaningful solidarity with the cause are not.