How my experience with sexual harm also became an educational and formative life experience

Trigger warning: this article refers to sexual harm throughout and includes suicidal references.

On 25 September 2020, the first day of my second year at Loughborough University, my life was completely turned upside down.

In the early hours of the morning, I was subjected to sexual harm by someone I thought I could trust and who I had spoken to a lot over the COVID lockdown. While being one of the most traumatic experiences I will ever endure, this event changed the trajectory of my life.

Over Christmas, I spent a lot of time internally debating whether what I was subjected to was worth escalating, or if it had even happened in the first place. It plagued me with a lot of self-doubt and denial. I confided in a close friend at the time who told me that it may be worth reaching out and reporting it.

Making a report

During my Semester One exams in January 2021, I reported this incident using the University’s Online Reporting Portal, which played a huge part in getting me the immediate support that I needed. At this point, none of my family knew. I felt as if I was carrying a dirty secret around with me.

The Duty, Assessment, and Inclusivity (DAI) Team and University Security handled my report with extreme care and timeliness. Within 48 hours, I met with a specialist  adviser who reassured me and then it began to really hit home what had happened to me.

I had to take this meeting in my garage, as my parents still did not know I was going through this as well as my remote exams. I had many meetings and phone calls with various members of staff, who knew these really intimate details about me. I remember getting a call from an investigator who was asking me things like “why do you think you were sexually assaulted?” and “can you tell me in depth what exactly happened”. These were really uncomfortable to answer, and I often felt I shouldn’t have had to explain these things.

In March, I was told my case would go to a Section 3 panel (for the most serious of University disciplinary incidents) and then it would be decided what would happen to this student. He had been suspended from campus while the investigation went on, which gave me a lot more peace of mind. I applied for mitigating circumstances and was provided with four resits in the following September, as my results weren’t as good as they could have been. I felt isolated and traumatised alone in my room with my own thoughts. I texted the SHOUT crisis line in February 2021, because I felt like my life had no purpose anymore.

Sharing my experience

I decided to share my experience on my personal Instagram just after the 2021 International Women’s Week, women like Sarah Everard and Meghan Markle were under fire by the media. It was a mentally draining time to check the news as a woman but enough was enough. I asked a large well-known Loughborough page to reshare my post, and my likes shot up. Every time I refreshed my page, there were 50 new likes. It was scary having a light shone on me like that, especially considering I didn’t know what the outcome of this investigation was going to be.

I eventually told my parents via iMessage and hearing my mum on the other end of the phone screaming and crying, was something that horrified me to this day. While it was a relief that they knew, knowing it hurt them too was difficult, which goes to show the extent of the impact these things can have on other people is a lot bigger than you think.

Anouska holding a sign saying "I am part of the 97% and I won't be silent"

Transforming my experience into something positive

In mid-April, I received a call from the Head of Security who told me the respondent had been excluded and his studies were terminated. While this was a great sense of relief, knowing he could not traumatise anyone else, I felt as if there was no real justice or futureproofing. Can he just resume his daily life? Will his future employers ever know about this? How can I warn others about him? I still think about these questions to this day. I wanted to use this experience for good and transform it into something positive. I knew it wasn’t over just yet.

My final year began in September 2021, and my Psychology dissertation had to be submitted in the following May. I wanted to write something I was really passionate about, which was (and still is) gender equity and ‘laddism’ in higher education. I was luckily assigned my personal tutor as my dissertation supervisor, and she supported me all the way. Getting the ethical clearance approved took a while, but I was so excited to stick my teeth into this project. I poured my heart and soul into this piece of writing. To this day I am endlessly proud of it, and I will treasure it for the rest of my life.

My personal tutor proposed to me early on that I present my finding to the Student Experience Team, a group of senior stakeholders at the University and Union (which I now sit on in my current job). My final piece was titled: ‘I Will Survive: what contributes to a sense of safety for self-identifying females? An ecological investigation into the multi-layered systems at a top-10 UK higher education institute.’ It was named after the song that got me through this ordeal.

A hand holding a copy of Anouska's disseration with the Hazlerigg building in the background

Submitting my dissertation

On the day I submitted my dissertation, I was getting my lashes done for the classic Hazlerigg fountain photo, and I remember hearing ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor on the radio. It was a really full-circle moment and it made me quite emotional. It affirmed to me I was right where I needed to be and I had done the right thing.

In May, I presented my dissertation findings to the Student Experience Team (SET) and it was such a good experience. The group was really engaged and asked me plenty of questions, which made me really feel like my voice was heard and I was making a difference in the world. I also presented my findings to the Head of Security who handled my case the year before, which was certainly nerve wracking.

Anouska standing at the front of a lecture theatre. To her right is a screen with here dissertation title projected onto it

Results day

On results day in July 2022, I got the email around 8am to let me know results had been published. I had no clue what to expect, I knew I needed around 72% to get a first, but I didn’t think I could do it. I glanced at my results… 80% in my dissertation. I could not believe it. 72.1% in Part C, and 70.5% overall. I was absolutely overjoyed. I did not think I had it in me after everything I had gone through in my degree.

Three weeks later, I was a first-class psychology graduate.

My advice

My advice to anyone who has gone through something similar is to always keep pushing no matter how hard life gets. There will always be someone who will listen to you, and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I am so glad that I am still here today and turned my pain into passion.

I am the current Welfare and Diversity Executive Officer at LSU, and now sit on the Student Experience Team and Sexual Violence Working Group and can make a meaningful impact on the student experience.

Support is available

If you have been subjected to sexual harm during your studies at Loughborough, you can seek support through Student Services, regardless of how long ago it happened. It takes a lot of courage to speak up, but doing so and having someone to talk to can be of great benefit.

  • If you want to report any form of harm you have experienced or on behalf of someone else, you can use the University’s Online Reporting Portal.
  • Support for men, women and children living in Leicestershire or Rutland can use the Amber Project sexual violence service.
  • If you are in need to speak to someone anonymously, you can text ‘SHOUT’ at 85258 for their text support service.
  • Practical support for self-identifying males to be a better bystander to casual misogyny from Leicestershire-based You’re Right, That’s Wrong, who have recently partnered with Loughborough University.
  • RAINN has also provided guidance for those who are unsure how to tell their loved ones about sexual violence.
  • Consent Collective TV has a range of videos aimed at college and university students around themes of consent and trauma within higher education, great for more educational settings.

The University’s Consent and Sexual Violence website has been created to inform, educate and support staff and students on matters linked to consent, sex and relationships. It features a range of articles for the University community about what consent is; information on the resources and support services available for someone who has been subjected to sexual violence; as well as the impact of committing sexual violence.