We’ve all got our own personal experiences of university. For some, it will bring back memories of campus nights out, sports society socials and nursing hangovers over a cup of coffee at the back of a lecture room. For others, time at university was dominated by late nights in the library, trawling through stacks of books and the frantic rush to submit an essay before impending deadlines.
For over 50% of students, these memories of some of the most important years of their lives will be tainted by experiences of sexual harassment.
Improving Awareness of Sexual Violence and Misconduct
The prevalence of sexual harassment and violence for university students will come as a shock to many. This is because, even though Revolt Sexual Assault reports that 62% of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence, there is a lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and violence, and severe under-reporting of such behaviour.
It is not surprising that there is such a lack of awareness over which behaviours may be classed as sexual harassment or violence within universities, given the widely established and so termed ‘lad culture’ that pervades university life. According to the NUS, lad culture can be defined as "as a group or ‘pack’ mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption, and ‘banter’ which was often sexist, misogynist and homophobic". If such a culture is to exist on university campuses, it may mean that behaviour that could be classed as sexual harassment or sexual violence instead becomes regarded as almost normal behaviour.
Brook’s research pointed out that, while 56% of students experienced unwanted sexual behaviours whilst at university, only 15% realised that this counted as sexual harassment.
When discussing my research around this topic with peers, an old university friend of mine confided that:
“Guys used to grab me inappropriately in the campus club all the time and I didn’t really think anything of it. It was just kind of normal, you know. I didn’t like it but I didn’t think I could really do anything about it - I definitely didn’t realise that it counted as sexual harassment.”
Why Are Students Not Reporting Sexual Violence?
Even when such behaviour was understood as sexual harassment or violence, it was highly unlikely that the victim would report the behaviour. According to Revolt, only 15% of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police, whilst only 6% reported their experiences to the university.
Why are students overwhelmingly deciding not to report incidents of sexual violence? One reason links back to a lack of understanding and awareness of sexual violence. According to a study by Revolt, 56% of students believed their experience wasn’t ‘serious enough’ to warrant reporting. Clearly, universities are not doing enough to convey that any experience of sexual harassment or sexual violence is serious and deserves attention and resolution.
A range of barriers exist for students choosing not to report incidents. For one, university campus life is like a bubble for many students. It's essentially a small community, wherein everyone knows each other, and they interact with the same people daily. Victims of sexual harassment will often have to see the perpetrator around campus regularly after the event. They may even be in the same social circle and attend the same events. According to a campaign by Revolt which encouraged those who had experienced sexual harassment to voice their reasons for not reporting incidents, students felt that it was much harder to report an incident in the bubble of university life, because they felt unprotected against the impact it would have.
Other reasons cited included:
- A lack of trust in the police
- A lack of support by university staff
- Unclear reporting procedures
- An ineffective response from the university to other incidents reported by friends
- A belief that it would not have been taken seriously
University is supposed to be a safe space. It is supposed to represent some of the best years of our lives. Most importantly, universities have a duty to protect their students.
Yet, with 62% of students experiencing some form of sexual harassment and violence whilst at university, it is evident that universities are failing significantly to safeguard their students.
It is time for universities to step up and acknowledge that action must be taken.
Because we all need to work together to ensure that #timesup for sexual harassment and violence at university.
This article was written by Becky Clark.