It Is Time to Acknowledge the Sexual Violence at UK Universities

Lara Andrews

The endemic sexual harassment and abuse that has been historically ingrained in university culture for the last decades has reached a pinnacle point that can no longer be ignored. In statistics gathered this year by Revolt Sexual Assault, a study of 4,500 people at universities across the UK established that 62% of respondents experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse on campus. Of all of the survey’s respondents, only 6% felt able to come forward to their university; of those who did, many felt ignored, side-lined or that they did not receive the support they needed. These shocking statistics are symptomatic of the wider societal issues: the suppression of the voices of survivors and the wilful ignorance of an endemic culture of abuse, even prevalent in our educational institutions.

The awful fact that only 6% of victims of sexual harassment or violence at university felt they could come forward to their educational institutions highlights the way in which UK universities are failing in their duty of care to the victims. Many of the 153 universities surveyed could not offer up any statistics on the number of people sexually harassed or abused on campus, as they had gathered no such statistics. This failure of duty clearly indicates universities’ wilful ignorance and limited attempts to tackle sexual harassment on campus, illustrating the wider way in which institutions are allowed to turn a blind eye to the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.

One key example of how UK universities have been allowed to fail to provide the infrastructure needed to report and deal with sexual abuse is through the changes seen in implementing new infrastructure, such as an anonymous reporting tool. Cambridge University introduced an anonymous reporting tool in May 2017 and, in the space of eight months, received 173 reports of sexual harassment, misconduct or assault, a drastic increase from 2 reports in 2014. This spike in reports is clearly indicative of how sexual harassment, misconduct or assault has been embedded within university culture, but victims have continuously been failed in having a means of reporting these incidents.

Universities, in their limited gathering of statistics, are clearly failing to highlight the scope of sexual violence on campus. Therefore, until they actively seek out and provide an adequate system for reporting sexual harassment, the true extent of the endemic will remain unknown and un-tackled. Universities should no longer be allowed to hide behind their low statistics to fail to provide the care needed for survivors, as well as the initiatives needed to reduce and prevent harassment and abuse on campus. If universities continue to fail in their duty of care and fail to take concrete steps towards both gathering statistics and reducing the prevalence of assault on campus, the government should become involved and force universities to confront the endemic nature of harassment on campus and prioritise victims’ rights.

Of course, this goes to the heart of a much wider societal issue: the systemic way in which victims are continuously disbelieved and are not provided with adequate support and recovery assistance. UK universities’ failure to tackle sexual harassment and assault is a microcosm of an ingrained societal culture of disbelieving and diminishing the impact on the victims and failing to provide them with adequate support. Young women and men, maybe at university for the first time, are unlikely to come forward to report these incidents or go through the ordeal of trying to prosecute, often as a result of the internalisation of the societal shaming of victims. Therefore, there needs to be a formalised body that actively seeks out victims: provides counselling services, support with the complicated process of prosecution and, simultaneously, a safe haven to help with recovery and mental health.

To make the responsibility entirely the victim’s is, in my opinion, a neglect of care and duty for the vulnerable people who may be entirely unsupported, if away from home for the first time, or suffering from trauma that isolates them from everyone around them. These people are likely to slip through the cracks if nothing is done to support them.  The ‘Me Too’ movement has begun to change the stigma surrounding reporting sexual harassment and assault and has seen the beginnings of a culture shift towards an understanding of the endemic nature of sexual harassment and violence, resulting in an increasing number of victims coming forward. However, there is still a tendency to turn a blind eye to the inconvenient truth that harassment and assault are societal issues embedded into our culture, and it will take time to reverse these conditions. Until that time, universities should be legally and morally obligated to provide infrastructure that supports survivors, gives them a voice and the resources they need to recover. Survivors’ rights are still not considered a priority by society. However, if universities are able to take the first steps in providing what is necessary to tackle sexual assault and harassment, through new reporting tools, education, enforcement and support, it could be the pivotal step required to start to change the endemic nature of abuse on campus and in society as a whole.

We need to see a culture shift in actively reaching out to survivors and taking steps to create the right conditions for victims to feel able to come forward. We need to see a culture shift in focusing on educating everyone on the prevalence on sexual assault on campus and actively trying to tackle the deep-rooted nature of the issue. We need to see a culture shift in universities taking responsibility for their duty to provide support for the victim’s of sexual violence and harassment.

Until we see reports of sexual harassment and assault at universities being taken seriously; initiatives to educate everyone with mandatory consent classes; an organised body of support for survivors; and active initiatives to spark awareness to the endemic nature of harassment and assault on campus, UK universities have failed in their responsibility.

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