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Cherwell, the Oxford University student newspaper, recently published a letter by one of its students. This wasn’t just any letter: 20-year-old Ione Wells was sexually assaulted whilst walking home in Camden after catching the last tube home. Her attacker was a boy of 17, who dragged her to the ground, ripped her bra in half and kicked her when she tried to scream. This horrific event spurred Wells on to waive her right to anonymity and share her story with the world.
The powerful words of Wells sparked the Twitter hashtag #NotGuilty, in a show of support for the student. She notes in her letter that: “You didn’t once reach for my belongings because you wanted my body,” and asks if her attacker ever thought of the people in her life before committing his crime. He never stopped to consider that she was a daughter, a friend, a sister, a niece, a student, or a girlfriend; he merely viewed her as an object that he felt he had a right to.
Since the letter was published, Wells’ attacker has been sentenced to two years in prison. Because of his age he must remain anonymous, but the effects of Wells’ letter have been profound. Reading it really makes you think about the way sexual assault can often be viewed in the media. #NotGuilty is a way of emphasising that these sorts of crimes have nothing to do with the victim and their choices. It doesn’t matter what clothes you wear, or whether you walk home late at night; the only person who can take any responsibility is the attacker. The campaign is a way for more people to speak out about their experiences, so that communities can come together in a show of support when these terrible crimes happen.
Wells described in her letter that it was because of her community that her attacker was stopped, a flurry of neighbours reacting to her cries for help and chasing him away. She proudly states that “we will continue to come together, like an army, when any member of our community is threatened”, highlighting the importance of standing together and not brushing these things under the carpet.
We need more people like Ione Wells. We need people who are willing to speak out and talk about their experiences, so awareness can be raised and people can be educated appropriately. It is vital that we stop victim blaming, and start looking for ways we can prevent such horrible attacks from taking place. Nowadays, women are taught to scream “fire” if they are being sexually assaulted, because more people are likely to listen. As communities, we need to show solidarity and determination. Wells will still take the tube home, and not be afraid of walking the streets alone. As she points out, the people of London didn’t let the 7/7 bombings deter them from taking the underground.
Often, we tell girls that they shouldn’t dress provocatively, or walk home alone at night, or get drunk. These are the sorts of things that make it easy to victim blame. It is never okay to place the blame on a victim of sexual assault. No matter what somebody wears or the way they act, consent is key. If someone says “no”, they mean it. We need to start teaching people to respect that, and to not be so ashamed of speaking out about their experiences. Nobody has the right to violate someone’s body the way Ione’s was violated. And I believe her letter is an important landmark in breaking the taboo over sexual assault: she waived her right to anonymity so people had the opportunity to stand together in support of anyone who has experienced sexual assault.