We need to recognise the existence of female sexual assault

Priya Bryant 20 May 2018

‘Grudgebridge’ has gained both praise and notoriety over the past couple of days. Once a controversial platform facilitating students wishing to share grievances, Grudgebridge recently announced its intention to shift its efforts towards exposing the university’s drinking societies. The page is encouraging anonymous submissions detailing anything from barbaric drinking initiations to shocking accusations of sexual assault. It is no secret that drinking societies can be incredibly problematic. From Cambridge’s Pitt Club to Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, stories of elitism, sexism and classism (to name a few) are far from rare. However, this might be the first time that Cambridge’s female drinking societies have been publicly called into question. 

Sexual assault has a significant gender disparity. According to a 2010 report, 92.5% of female victims of sexual assault reported male perpetrators. This hardly seems a surprising statistic, given the string of sexual crimes recently reported in the media perpetrated by the likes of Harvey Weinstein and John Worboys. But what about the other 7.5%, who were victims of crimes perpetrated by women?

Crime statistics reflect only reported instances of sexual offences. While 7.5% looks like a small figure, it might not reflect the whole story. Men are, in general, viewed as a greater threat. They are generally physically bigger and stronger, giving them the power to physically intimidate and exert control over women. Women are often not as physically strong, and thus may be viewed as less of a threat. However, women are still capable of emotional manipulation; they can play with the victim’s trust, confidence and esteem to debilitate them. From a very young age, women have been taught to be wary of men, but don’t regularly exercise the same caution with other women. This can make it difficult to discern whether something is a bit of fun, or making you feel genuinely uncomfortable, blurring the boundary of abuse. Even the most platonic female relationships can be very intimate. The question therefore arises: is this statistic 7.5% so small because genuinely fewer instances of assault by women occur, or because individuals are less likely to identify sexual assault perpetrated by women?  

Moreover, many victims believe that crimes perpetrated against them are, to an extent, their fault. ‘Gaslighting’ is a form of manipulation which seeks to destabilise the victim’s memory and perception of the events, forcing them to question their status as a victim. They may feel embarrassed and ashamed, and seeking support can be a huge obstacle to overcome. However, this problem is exacerbated when the perpetrator of a sexual assault is a woman. Stereotypes of women as the weaker sex can be damaging, particularly where this produces an image of women as ‘incapable’ of sexual assault. Where professional help is sought, the victim may fear that their allegations may not be taken as seriously, and a victim might be too uncomfortable to establish a support network in their friends for fear of the crime being delegitimised and invalidated.

We must stop assuming that the perpetrators of sexual assault are exclusively male. This is a dangerous assumption, and discourages individuals from identifying and reporting instances of sexual assault. Women guilty of assault must be called out for their actions and face the same social repercussions as men. Regardless of the truth of the Grudgebridge accusations, the ordeal has served as an important reminder: sexual assault can be committed by any gender, against any gender, and this does not decrease its validity or severity.