This guest post by Rosie Busiakiewicz, third year art historian, is prompted by the ‘In conversation with the Master’ event with Carlene Firmin, held at Fitzwilliam on 11 March.

Master, Nicky Padfield, with Carlene Firmin.

Master Nicky Padfield, with Carlene Firmin.

Last week, Fitz was lucky enough to host a talk from alumna Carlene Firmin MBE, as part of the new ‘In Conversation with the Master’ series. Only in her late twenties, Carlene’s list of achievements is impressive; featured on the Black Powerlist 2014 and 2013, she has also been named one of Glamour’s ’35 most powerful women under 35’ as well as receiving a nomination for Cosmopolitan’s Ultimate Women of the Years Awards 2013 – not to mention her London Peace award in 2008 and her MBE in 2011, at which time she was the youngest black woman to receive the honour. This recognition is all down to impressive work with vulnerable children: for two years Carlene was the Principal Policy Advisor to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. Her project Girls Against Gangs and her MsUnderstood Partnership have continued this work into improving responses towards young people’s experiences of gender inequality.

Carlene’s talk at Fitz centred on the distressing but prevalent issue of sexual bullying. The case studies she presented were harrowing – girls as young as 11 and 12 were being subjected to sexual assault, violence and rape by their own peers, and people they would consider their friends. It was the age of these young women – or, more literally, these children – that shocked the audience the most, with Carlene stressing that if a vulnerable young person becomes involved with a toxic friendship group then peer-on-peer sexual bullying can happen at any age. What is even more distressing, however, are the legal problems which mean that justice can often not be brought against the perpetrators of these acts, and there was much discussion about the sketchy issue of ‘consent’. Carlene highlighted the true story of an 11-year-old girl, who often had her phone stolen by friends and told she was only allowed it back by performing sexual acts on male members of her wider friendship circle. Physically abused as a child, she knew that if she didn’t comply with their demands then she would be physically and emotionally hurt. When a sexual health clinic finally found out what was occuring, she gave a statement to police where her truth stood against her; she explained that she had a choice between sexual violence and physical abuse of another kind, and therefore she opted for the former. Despite her clear lack of willingness to partake in the acts, and the fact she was under the legal age of consent, her rapists and abusers were allowed to walk free.

The discussion moved on the rise of pornography and the internet boom, to exploring how the explicit objectification of women on-screen influenced on sexual crime. Liberating phenomena such as SlutWalk support this view. Slutwalk is a protest march where women dress in ‘provocative’ clothing, with the aim to show that society needs to change its opinion of consent – rape is the rapist’s fault, and a girl wearing a mini-skirt or low-cut dress should not be held accountable.

Indeed, members of the audience were interested in whether Carlene’s findings about sexual bullying were applicable to older members of society too. Carlene gave as an example sporting societies and fraternities in America where boys want to ‘out-do’ their friends’ sexual exploits so they can win the position of alpha-male, and they are willing to perform assault in order to maintain their popularity and identity.

We should also be asking whether it is a problem at Cambridge. We’ve held our own highly successful SlutWalks, and as Jinan Younis, a first-year Cambridge student, recently wrote in a piece for The Guardian it appears that rape culture is a problem at our university, as elsewhere. Stories of girls having their drinks spiked by male friends, or being ‘touched up’ against their will, combined with aggressive and degrading ‘lad banter’ can make for a socially toxic environment. Some of the anonymous stories submitted to a new organisation Cambridge Speaks Its Mind are testament to the problem.

I feel incredibly lucky to be at Fitzwilliam. At a time when other colleges are still struggling to create a Women’s Officer position on their JCR, Fitz has a great history of female welfare and empowerment. At Carlene’s talk I was fortunate enough to meet Ellie Shepherd (English, 2004), the Women’s Officer from 2007 who proceeded to become the CUSU Women’s Sabbatical Officer and left Fitz to work for charities including Clean Break, which works with vulnerable females upon leaving prison. Combined with our dedicated Welfare sub-committee, alumni such as Ellie and Carlene, and of course our first female Master, Fitzwilliam is a great place to be a woman.

Despite the harrowing stories that Carlene presented us with, Nicky spoke for the audience when she said she felt privileged to be taking part in the evening’s discussions – and I hope to utilise much of what I learnt from Carlene when I start working for Teach First in 2015, where I will be placed in a challenging community which may face some of these issues. Moreover I think I speak for all of the Fitzwilliam students when I say that I felt incredibly proud of my college at Carlene’s talk.  It was completely inspiring to know of the great research that our alumni are doing, and the least we can do to honour Carlene’s incredible work is to apply what we learnt from her to improve our own society and university.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

2 Comments

  1. Great to see these serious issues being aired. Discussing this in public has to help and encourage more girls to apply. My daughter Lizzi is coming up in 2015. I am sure she will be interested to see this discussion. Great to bring the discussion out in the open.

  2. I feel nervous drawing a comparison between the sexual abuse that Carlene was talking about, and the situation at Cambridge University.

    See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/opinion/who-suffers-most-from-rape-and-sexual-assault-in-america.html?emc=edit_th_20141222&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=67302320&_r=0 , which refers to sexual assault in privileged universities as “the suggestion of an epidemic where one does not exist”. The data comes from America, would be interesting to see if there is a similar situation here.

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