breaking silence: changing the culture around sexual harassment at uk universities

In 2010, a landmark study found that one in seven students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university. While structural changes are undoubtedly taking place, the toxic culture of UK universities is harder to fix.

by Emily Reynolds
01 April 2019, 11:06am

Nathalie was a Masters student at the University of Cambridge when she was raped in 2015. Followed to her room after a sports club party, Nathalie was forcibly undressed and sexually assaulted; CCTV footage from her accommodation shows her running through the street barefoot, dressed only in her underwear.

Nathalie is one of many UK students who has experienced sexual assault while at university. Recent research conducted by sexual health charity Brook found that more than half of UK students had been subject to harassment or assault. In 2010, a landmark study from the National Union of Students (NUS) found that one in seven students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university. And, like Nathalie, the vast majority of the perpetrators of these attacks were already known to the victim.

Nathalie told college officials of the attack just a day later. But rather than receiving support, she says she was questioned instead. “I was asked questions about what I’d been wearing, whether I’d cheated on my boyfriend and now regretted it, how much I’d had to drink. I was told that I shouldn’t tell my friends or family because that would be too difficult for me, and was advised to not speak to the police. I was never offered a counsellor, and was never given any information about Cambridge Rape Crisis.”

Most upsettingly, she was also kept in the dark about how her complaint had been dealt with; rather than being informed about proceedings, Nathalie says she was forced to chase officials, only to receive unsatisfactory answers.

Her experience mirrors Brook’s findings. In their survey, only 8% of students who had experienced sexual assault ever reported it; in the NUS report a few years earlier, only 4% reported sexual violence to their institution and 10% to the police. In “less serious” instances -- which included groping or harassment -- reporting rates were even lower, at 2%. Victims gave a wide variety of reasons as to why they didn’t report, but the most popular reason was that they simply felt they would not be believed.

“All I wanted was to feel listened to, respected and for them to address just some of the systemic, misogynistic culture at the heart of student life,” Nathalie says. “They had the opportunity to take my rape as a way to lead the university towards policy that would address misogyny. They decided not to.” Nathalie’s rapist was allowed to carry on attending her college, despite officials being aware of what had happened.

The University of Cambridge can’t comment on specific cases. But it does say that much has changed since Nathalie’s experience. It points to a number of new initiatives put into place: in 2017, it launched a campaign, Breaking the Silence, that it says helps students like Nathalie receive help after an attack.

Structural changes are undoubtedly taking place. But the culture of UK universities is harder to fix. Nathalie describes the misogynistic culture of UK universities as “toxic” -- something University of York Feminist Society member Laura brings up repeatedly when we talk about her experiences at university.

“If you want to have the traditional university experience in which you live in halls, go to Freshers Week, join sports teams, that misogynistic lad culture is still extremely prevalent,” she says. This casual disrespect of women, she believes, is a huge contributing factor to low reporting rates -- why would somebody report a crime that they felt nobody would believe?

Unlike the US, where Title IX outlaws gender discrimination, there are no specific pieces of legislation around sexual misconduct related to higher education in the UK.

The problem doesn’t seem to be abating. Just this week, women of the LSE Athletics Union wrote to the men’s division to complain about misogynistic chants; one song performed by the university’s men’s rugby team was entitled “My Girlfriend’s a Vegetable”. (LSE say it is “deeply concerned” about the allegations and that it is investigating further).

And after numerous bad experiences in her first year of university, Laura, now in her third year, avoids sports societies and certain club nights.

“There are certain nights and certain clubs that have reputations for tolerating harassment and assault, and there’s a general consensus on which places and groups are safe and which aren’t,” she says. “We’ve had to figure that out.”

Clubs can be particularly problematic when it comes to reporting, too. Clubs marketed at students, but not affiliated with universities have “no accountability to any university body” if something happens, Laura says, because they’re not institutionally related. “These clubs have so many students in almost every night of the week -- but if anything happens there, there’s no process or responsibility. The university will have nothing to do with it, even though they’re the ones taking us there. They’re the ones cultivating the culture around going out. But if something goes wrong, they have no responsibility.” A University of York spokesperson said that it takes sexual assault “very seriously”, and that it “works closely with the student unions and local authorities in raising awareness of these issues”.

“Students are encouraged to report incidents to us, and if appropriate, the police. If a student made us aware of an incident off campus we would also raise any concerns with the venue directly."

Legislation around sexual misconduct on campus is not always clear. Unlike the US, where Title IX outlaws gender discrimination, there are no specific pieces of legislation around sexual misconduct related to higher education in the UK. “Here, protections are provided under general criminal law,” explains Julian Sladdin, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. “Universities also have duties of care to their students under contract and the common law.”

And for the last 20 years, universities followed the counsel of the 1994 Zellick Report. The guidance was supposed to help them handle complaints where misconduct also constituted a criminal offence -- the first of its kind in the UK. “It was of significant value to the HE sector at the time,” Sladdin says. “It acknowledged the ability of universities to investigate such matters as misconduct, but urged caution due to the limitations of internal process against the criminal law.”

But 20 years on and the guidance was starting to look dated. In 2015, the NUS launched its #StandByMe campaign against assault on campus, the first objective of which was clear: to scrap the Zellick report. Since 1994, significant social and legal changes have occurred. The Equality Act was brought in in 2010, and social media has completely changed the landscape for students. In 2015 a task force was established by Universities UK (UUK) to examine violence against women.

Its resulting report, Changing the Culture, was significant, eventually leading to a change in guidelines in 2016. “The updated UK guidance has addressed those historical issues, and the perceived disconnect between the duties that universities have to their students” Sladdin says.

There’s significant work going on in the sector -- Sladdin points to the research of the 1752 Group, who campaign on issues related to staff-student harassment, as well as universities’ attempts to practically implement the new guidance. “This has involved universities not only updating their own internal procedures, but also driving wider cultural change around safeguarding,” he says. Cultural change is key -- in fact, many believe it’s a bigger issue than structural change. Sarah Lasoye, National Women’s Officer at the NUS, points out that pick-up of new guidelines “isn’t necessarily meeting the urgency of the situation”.

“They’re not mandated to make any changes, Universities UK isn’t a body that has the power to force universities to do anything.” she says. “It’s very much a case by case whether or not staff are interested in looking at their policies and making it work.”

While consent classes might be a step in the right direction, shouldn’t students be taught the principles of consent before they reach university?

Wider change within universities is a key factor -- and nowhere is this more evident than in cuts to mental health services. More students are seeking help from mental health services but, despite this, services are being cut. Many university mental health services are being replaced by ‘wellbeing’ services, centres often staffed by people with no clinical training whatsoever, who simply signpost students to external services -- services themselves oversubscribed and subject to brutal cuts.

This can have a significant impact on the victims of sexual assault and rape, therapist Paula Coles says. Coles worked for Southampton Rape Crisis for 20 years; she now works in private practice, specialising in clients who have experienced sexual trauma. She’s seen first-hand what cuts to mental health services can do to victims.

“Say tomorrow someone's attacked at Southampton University,” she says. “They can speak to their tutor, who may not have any specific training on handling something like that. They might go the ‘wellbeing service’, who offer mindfulness groups or refer to GPs; the GP then puts them on a waiting list. Or you can ring Rape Crisis, who have a brilliant helpline -- but you might be on an 18 month waiting list. It’s not adequate.”

Katt Walton, Oxford University’s Women’s Officer, points out that the burden doesn’t seem to be falling on academics: “It’s falling on students”, she says. In her experience, student-led welfare initiatives are being used to an “alarming extent”, victims of complex trauma being helped by students with good intentions but zero training.

And this could have serious implications -- not only could it exacerbate traumatic symptoms, but it could have an impact on reporting. As Walton points out, inappropriate disclosure can affect a police report; done incorrectly, and a whole case could be thrown out.

While students who have been assaulted struggle to cope with the effects of their trauma, others have been working to stop these assaults from happening at all. Consent workshops have become more and more popular; Walton says they’re key to educating students on consent and for creating a community of “effective bystanders”, showing success in some areas. King's College London now requires students to complete a consent course as part of its online enrolment system, and NUS provides an ‘I Heart Consent’ toolkit that many universities now use. But while consent classes might be a step in the right direction, shouldn’t students be taught the principles of consent before they reach university?

David Brockway thinks so. Brockway is schools' project manager at the Good Lad Initiative, a project designed to “promote positive masculinity”. He’s responsible for the design and implementation of school programs for boys, many of which focus on the objectification of women, sexual harassment and consent.

The workshops, Brockway says, are “solutions-focused”. The team actively avoids a legal approach (“we don’t want to give them an arrest avoidance kit”), instead asking boys how they feel about the issue and proceeding from there. They also encourage boys to stop making jokes about sexual assault, and to call out friends who do. “We teach them that they have a responsibility,” he explains. “Which actually gives them some empowerment over the issue”.

If this sounds a lot like the consent workshops delivered at university, that’s because it is -- indeed, the Good Lad Initiative also works with universities including Oxford. The difference is that education starts much earlier. “Obviously, the earlier the better,” Brockway says. “Explaining consensual relationships at a young age is so important; if you start young, it's a lot easier to see it later.”

"We’re in a moment where there’s huge potential to redefine what our responses to sexual assault are – for the perpetrator as well as the survivor"

So what’s the solution? There’s no easy answer, as you might expect. Although Sarah Lasoye has several demands. First, a culture change across universities — tangible, practical steps towards improving student experience. Universities need to see this change as “part of their responsibility” too, seeing higher education as a place that's “not just service-giving, not as a consumer relationship, but ideologically and fundamentally about societal education and interpersonal education”.

“The university could be doing more to reimagine its purpose,” she says.

She also points to disciplinary action -- educating perpetrators, taking a “corrective, not just a punitive” response. “We’re also here to reach you and help you correct those behaviours that you might not have realised before are completely dehumanising to students across the board.”

Overall, she’s hopeful.

“Alongside the cultural work that universities need to be more willing to take on and put money behind, the institutional change should be mirrored to be as robust and effective as it can be in that regard. We’re in a moment where there’s huge potential to redefine what our responses to sexual assault are -- for the perpetrator as well as the survivor.”

As for Nathalie, she’s keen to make legislative change, pointing to Title IX in the US: “we have nothing parallel to this in the UK”, she says. Having the sense that universities are following an institutionalised procedure is key, too: “it gives you the hope there’s a structure in place to support you and help you be heard”.

“Universities should also be empowered to investigate improper behaviour, irrespective of any police investigation that may also occur,” Nathalie continues. “They have a duty of care.”

“After all -- university campuses are students’ homes.”

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