Harassment and Bullying at Cambridge – We need to talk about it.

CONTENT WARNING: this blog post contains a link to some direct transcripts of threatening messages I have received. These contain threats of physical and sexual violence which you might find distressing. Please be aware of this before you click on the link.

The theme of my MPhil year has, sadly, been harassment.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s been a lot about this year which has been great. For all of its faults, I’m enjoying my MPhil, and in particular the company of the people I’ve met on the course. Being a graduate has its pitfalls, but, refreshingly, there is a sense that my academic life is in my hands, rather than the hands of the Tripos system. I’ve done some great comedy gigs (gigging with Kate Smurthwaite at the start of the year was great, as was my solo show a few weeks ago); but sadly I have to admit that for the entirety of this academic year I have been the victim of sustained harassment and bullying. I write this for two reasons. Firstly, because I don’t think I should suffer this bullshit in silence; perhaps by letting the wider world know, someone might come forward with information as to who is the perpetrator. Secondly, and more importantly to me, I suspect I’m not the only person at Cambridge to have suffered harassment and bullying – in fact, I’m certain of it – so to those of you who have been in this position: you aren’t alone. And we need to start talking about it. I should warn people in advance that some of the bullying messages I have received are extremely graphically violent, so brace yourselves…

The problem began before the start of the academic year. I was about to begin at a new college (Queens’) which was a relief as I’d never really felt entirely comfortable in my old one (Sidney Sussex). More on that another time. Before I matriculated, in the run-up to my first days at the college, I noticed I had already been allocated a pigeon hole, and I was mildly excited to see that it was already full. Its contents were two notes: the first of these branded me a “cheater and a liar,” and the second, written all in capitals was: “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY COLLEGE YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.” Charming. At the time, I was upset, but didn’t report the notes. I didn’t really want my first ever interaction with my new college to be one of reporting harassment. In hindsight, I probably should have done so. Oh well.

A number of other incidents took place in the Queens’ post room. I ordered a few books online, to be delivered to my college address, and never received any of them. Each time, I found the packaging of the book stuffed into my pidge, and the book itself missing. I am not in college that regularly, thus it would have been easy enough for someone to steal my books. Pigeon hole thefts, however, aren’t really much to write home about, and are depressingly common in Cambridge. I reported each incident to the Porters. Queens’ doesn’t have CCTV in the post room, thus there wasn’t much they could do. Somewhere, someone has my copies of “Heartbreak,” by Andrea Dworkin, “On Contradiction and Practice,” by Mao, and “A Thousand Plateaus” by Deleuze and Guattari, and I’d quite like them back. I’m also aware that that selection of books makes me sound like a right pretentious twit, but hey, I am a pretentious twit.

The abuse, however, really kicked into overdrive in Lent term. Some of you may have read my previous blog post about this –  the abuse began after I wrote something long-winded but broadly inoffensive about the CUSU elections. The sneering field-day that sections of the student press were having about the lack of candidates for a couple of positions was annoyingly unbalanced and I figured that I might write a few things about the situation from the perspective of someone who’d worked for CUSU. This provoked an online shit-storm. Within a few days of my post, I had received no less than 20 threats of violence and death. Many of these were comments on the blog, while others were sent directly to my email address. Now, this I find very perplexing. Whilst the issue of CUSU is fairly polarising in Cambridge, I really can’t see how someone cares so much about my opinions on what is essentially a small charity in East Anglia to wish death upon me, let alone so incessantly. That said, I know the internet, and it is, among other things, a forum for people to be as nasty as possible in a scatter gun approach. Perhaps someone had shared my blog post on the wrong forum, and so anti-left, anti-student, or even anti-Cambridge individuals had decided to vent their rage against me. I tried my best to get on with things. It was, however, at this point, that I was introduced to “Voice of Cambridge,” the screen name of the troll and bully who has been the bane of my life since.

Following this, I received some of the following messages, often on a daily basis. After disabling comments on the blog, most of these came to my personal email account.  I publish a handful of them on a Google doc here – *PLEASE NOTE THAT THEY ARE GRAPHICALLY VIOLENT IN TERMS OF PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL ASSAULT*

The sad thing is that these are only a handful of the messages I have received. The last of these messages were in relation to some comments I made on a very depressing article about consent, which you can read here, complete with my comments

By this point in the year, I was starting to feel scared and threatened. I’ve written about my response to the online abuse elsewhere in the blog. However, matters came to a head a few days ago. On Saturday, (May 24th) I went into Queens’ and decided to check my post as I hadn’t done so for a good few weeks. As I have most important things sent to my house, (partially due to the abusive messages earlier this year), I check my post in college very rarely. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I saw my pidge was full of leaflets; chapel leaflets, adverts for shows, stuff from CUSU. It was all piled at the back of my pidge, so I reached in to pull it all out in one go. And then I felt something, right at the back of my pigeon hole, snap shut on my index finger. I yanked my hand out, bashing it hard against the roof of my pidge, my finger feeling like it was about to explode with pain.

Right at the back of my pigeon hole, hidden under all of the leaflets, was a mousetrap.

It was this which had caught my finger. Someone had put it into my pigeon hole, set it, and covered it with leaflets, a trap which could well have broken my finger. Luckily for me, I managed to yank my hand away, but the result is ligament damage, which means I am typing this with my index and middle finger of my right hand taped together, pointing absurdly at the computer screen. I finally caved and reported it to the police. Whether they will be able to do anything about this attempt at finger-breaking is another matter. Not long after this, I received the latest anonymous email:

We sent you a little gift – hope you got it! See if you can point the FINGER of blame now. Lots of love sweetie!!!!! Voice of Cambridge (and my many many many you hating friends.)”

Let’s take a step back and reflect on this: all of these messages have been sent from fake email accounts, the kind that one can easily create and which “self destruct” after a short period of time. Most, if not all, use the screen name “Voice of Cambridge,” but the tone of these messages vary – many of them are graphically sexually violent, others seem mocking and theatrical. And then the mousetrap in my pigeon hole is so oddly violent it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s like something from one of those films like Home Alone where an savvy kid deals out the pain to nefarious adults using household objects. 
And the scariest thing is that I have no idea who this is. I thought, initially, that the messages were coming from a random internet troll who, for reasons unknown, or no reason at all, had chosen me as a random target. Perhaps it was someone on the extreme right who’d taken exception to my leftist politics, though I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hardly the most vocal leftist at Cambridge. Everyday I run through potential perpetrators in my head – all the people I’ve ever had a disagreement with, or clashed with, or upset, but no-one comes to mind who was, as far as I was aware, so upset, and so angry, that they would want to harass me, and then try to physically assault me. This anonymity means there is very, very little I can do. If the perpetrator(s) were another member of Queens’, or of the University, I could begin harassment procedures against them. I would also be able to press charges. But this person, or persons, is doing a damn good job of hiding their tracks. All of the emails are, apparently, untraceable. I blocked each address, only for a new one to be created. Short of changing both my Hermes address, and my GMail, I can’t think of anything I can do. I’ve reported matters to the police, but heard nothing from them. Chances are that they are as stumped as I am. 
You might think that I’m sounding remarkably calm given all that has happened. I have to be – frankly, if I let these random acts of cruelty and abuse get to me, I suspect that it would take a long time before I was ready to face the world again. The short term consequence is that I now no longer want to have anything to do with Queens’. Nothing personal to them, or to say they haven’t tried to be helpful (they have) but being in that college makes me afraid, and so, to the person who put that note in my pidge at the beginning of the year – congrats. You won. 
The main reason I am writing this, however, is because I want to try and reach out to anyone else who has experienced this kind of online and offline harassment at Cambridge.  It can’t just be me. Unlike many of my other posts, where I at this point would start laying into the University or the colleges for not having a policy about this, or not caring about that, I genuinely do think that the most powerful thing that people can do in this situation is to let the world know what they are going through. Bullying tends to work best when the victim stays silent, and the bully can take this as a sign that they can continue with impunity. Perhaps I’ll never know who is responsible for this harassment, but I take some comfort from the fact that I won’t be staying quiet about it, and, perhaps, they’ll be caught. So to anyone else who’s experienced this – I am so so sorry. And you are not alone.

*Note – comments will be open, but moderated*


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