By Frances Howe, LLB
Trigger warning: sexual violence
Corinna Del Debbio is a final year Politics and International Relations student at SOAS. On the 28th of August this year, Corinna published an open letter to SOAS regarding their guidance on ‘Preventing and Responding to Sexual and Gender-based Violence’ (SGBV). Corinna’s letter, signed alongside 50 students, called for more accountability from SOAS. Above all, the letter criticised a policy which removes the victim from the focus of proceedings and which regards a consent workshop as an appopriate sanction for sexual violence.
Tell me a bit about where the open letter came from.
As I mentioned in the letter, I was triggered by one specific case that I heard about at SOAS. It was a combination of that and trying to get involved and an interest in addressing sexual abuse in general, and personal experience as well. [When] this case at SOAS happened, it was quite close to my heart and I actually had the opportunity for the first time to act on it.
Because, up until then, it’s been an issue I speak about loads. It’s an issue I’m vocal about on social media; it’s an issue that I always offer to give people advice on. But I had never done something for it that was proactive and so that’s what sparked writing the letter. I wrote it, a couple of my friends proof-read it, and then I sent it in.
Were you shocked to find out that a university seemingly as progressive as SOAS had such a backwards policy on complaints of sexual violence?
Yeah, I was really shocked. I was also immediately shocked because it was so hard to actually find the documents with the policy – that was a massive red flag. And then reading through it, it was really shocking because there was no specific set of potential attributions for ways to deal with it that were any different from any other type of issue you’d have at uni. From plagiarism, to graffiti, to rape – it’s all in one context.
What was the reaction from students to the letter?
Really amazing. On my Instagram story, I put up a post explaining very basic elements of the case in question and what went wrong with it. I put this out saying: ‘This is what I’m writing, guys. If anyone at SOAS wants to get involved, please drop me a DM and I can send you a letter so you can put your name on it …’ After having written that, two or three of the students that signed it then reached out to me to speak about their own experience with sexual abuse. Among students, the reaction, the feedback, has been amazing. It’s been really nice.
How did the university respond?
I haven’t had a direct response. In the meantime, the senior management have released a draft of their new SGBV policy which they’ve been working on after quite a lot of pressure from Account For This and also a little bit of pressure from my letter, I’m not sure. So, in a weird way, they’ve not directly acknowledged my letter, but it’s quite nice because bits of it are echoed in this new draft.
What would have been your ideal response from SOAS?
First of all, any response. I would have loved for it to be directly acknowledged, that would have been a really big thing for me.
You mention that SOAS is coming out with a new policy – have your recommendations been taken into account?
There’s some changes being made. There’s a definite attempt to refocus the policy, trying to make it victim-centered and trauma-informed. There’s a definite attempt to do that. Whether or not that carries out throughout the entire policy, I’m not actually sure. There’s a couple of bits of the policy that just shouldn’t be there. For example, they’ve included a whole subsection on false reports. I mean, you wouldn’t have that in any other type of school policy. You wouldn’t have a whole bit on plagiarism if someone’s made a false report. There was just no need to put it in. It really just feeds into the myth that false reporting for sexual abuse is massively high when it’s just not. It’s a tiny proportion. All it does is just regenerate that narrative.
Since publishing the letter in August, Corinna has kept busy planning the release of her podcast with SOAS radio. The podcast, ‘Sex Undressed’ aims to make up for the shortcomings of sex education by encouraging listeners to engage in healthy discussions about what we enjoy and what we don’t.
At school you’re very much taught consent – at least I personally was. We went over it briefly in one lesson, and it was essentially just: ‘Do you want to have sex? Yes or no? If it’s yes it’s consent, if it’s no, it’s not.’ They didn’t really delve into different types of consent. How consent can change during sex and how you can consent to have sex in a certain way but that doesn’t mean you consent to have sex any way… I think the aim of the podcast would be for people to get used to hearing others talk about these things, and then hopefully be in a position where they [can] also start to talk or think about them more freely.
Yet Corinna’s plans don’t end there; after SOAS, she plans to continue working around these themes.
I want to develop my photography portfolio so that I can do a photography masters, with an end goal in mind of being in a position where I can take photos related to this issue. Photojournalism centred around this issue is the long-term aim; the short-term goal is to get a photography masters.
Photo Caption: Corinna Del Debbio. Credit: Corinna Del Debbio.