Universities must do more to tackle public sexual harrassment

Awareness campaigns, support services and coordination with local authorities and transport providers are all needed, says Maya Tutton

February 25, 2021
A street sign reading "Respect Road" illustrating the theme of sexual harrassment
Source: iStock

Public sexual harassment (PSH) – unwanted sexual behaviour, actions or gestures in public spaces – is fundamentally holding back the lives of women and non-binary students in the UK and elsewhere. By limiting our freedom and restricting our movement, it is preventing us achieving our full potential.

I know this to be true because it is my own experience. I have endured relentless harassment since starting university. One incident in particular stands out: I was walking back to my accommodation one evening when two men on bikes approached me. One of them pretended to try to run me over before swerving at the last minute. After I challenged him, he shouted: “Shut up, you fucking sket”. I was left angry and afraid, unable to properly concentrate on my university work for days. The longer-term impact was that my university city has never felt the same.

My experience is far from uncommon, and could have been far more threatening. The UK parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee stated in 2018 that sexual harassment is “blighting women’s experiences of university”. Just last week, a student at the University of Warwick was harassed by a group of men shouting “let’s get her”.

These experiences are often compounded by other forms of discrimination such as homophobia and racism, and the pervasive fear that follows them leads to harmful behavioural changes, such as avoiding wearing certain clothing, not walking down certain streets or even deciding not to go out at all, missing lectures or social events. One student told me that she never goes out on university sports nights for fear of this violence and that the one time she did she was “verbally harassed and assaulted”.

As women and non-binary students, we feel we have to undertake such “safety work”, as Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence at London Metropolitan University, has labelled it. But PSH should be tackled at all levels of society, through cultural, legislative and policy changes. That’s why, alongside my younger sister, Gemma, I started Our Streets Now: a nationwide, grassroots and youth-led movement to end public sexual harassment.

We have started to develop educational programmes that we hope will be implemented in schools across the UK and we have garnered more than 200,000 signatures in support of our petition to make PSH a specific criminal offence. We have taken the problem, and our solution, straight to the heart of government through consultations, focus groups and a round table with the home secretary earlier this month.

This week, we launch the #StudentsNotObjects campaign, demanding our right as higher education students to learn and study in peace, free from the fear of harassment. In an accompanying report, “They Saw My Fear and Laughed”, we report that 84 per cent of students we surveyed have experienced PSH. Furthermore, we found that 49 per cent have experienced harassment on their way to and from university, pointing to the need for policies going beyond the campus confines.

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Shockingly, nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of students don’t know or are unsure about where to report or seek PSH support services at their institutions. Yet this is unsurprising given the deafening silence about the issue from higher education institutions. While #MeToo started a conversation about sexual harassment, it has not led to the substantial paradigm shift in institutional priorities needed to end gender-based violence.

Based on students’ top priorities for change, we have compiled a list of clear demands from universities. First, we ask for compulsory consent workshops to be introduced (a low-cost, high-impact intervention still missing from most institutions) and for ongoing PSH training for staff and students. We also call for well-funded, institution-wide campaigns to raise awareness about harassment, stressing a zero-tolerance policy and signposting support services. The appointment of a full-time sexual assault and harassment advisor at every higher education institution is also crucial. And we’re asking universities to work with local authorities and transport providers to reduce harassment in the local area.

These measures may seem costly, but the price of not introducing them is far higher given the impact of PSH on students’ mental and physical health – with its knock-on consequences for academic success. Working to create a safer environment for students, and empowering them with spaces and tools to speak out about gender-based violence, will pay off in the long run.

In order to get our message out, we’ve set up a network of Our Streets Now ambassadors, now rolled out at 17 UK universities. These ambassadors will work locally to start conversations about PSH with students, staff and the local population, while also lobbying their institutions for change. A ripple effect of institutional change has already begun: in Manchester, for instance, a round table was recently held to discuss PSH and, crucially, possible solutions to it. Local authorities, police and university representatives are now working together at the instigation of an Our Streets Now ambassador.

The time to have this conversation has never been more urgent. While many students are away from campuses, we should all be reflecting on what changes can and must be made so that when all students return, universities can be safe for all.  If you’re a student, join us. If you’re a staff member, we need you too. And if you’re in a position of power, I ask you to use your influence to help us ensure that higher education is a place of learning, not harassment.

As one student shared: “I came to university to learn, to make friends, to see the world and explore a newfound freedom.” Help us realise that dream of a university experience marked by freedom, not fear.

Maya Tutton is co-founder of Our Streets Now and an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.

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