Higher education must address gender-related violence

Universities need to ensure that those with everyday contact with young people recognise and challenge abuse, says Miriam David

October 23, 2014

Our aim is to improve how those with everyday contact with young people recognise and challenge gender-related violence

Sexual abuse and violence against women is never far from media attention these days. Revelations about the systematic abuse of vulnerable girls in Yorkshire has prompted a slew of resignations, and there is to be an official investigation into historic cases of child sexual abuse as the list of celebrities and other public figures allegedly involved seems to grow daily.

Such public debates about how we discuss gender and sexual relations represent a welcome change. But it is only skin deep, for sexism is still accepted as everyday practice among those in powerful positions in areas such as law, politics and – yes – higher education. In the US, “campus sexual assaults” are often in the public eye, and in January, President Barack Obama created a task force to deal with “the crime, the outrage, of sexual violence” in secondary schools and universities. In the UK, however, the issue is rarely acknowledged. Here, sexual abuse and sexism are still presented as problems for others – especially poor “white trash”, or young women – rather than affecting us all.

There is little challenge to fundamental and deep-seated problems of how to develop and maintain appropriate social and sexual relations, such as how to show young men that the women in the images of sex they see on the internet are airbrushed versions of reality.

This neglect seems odd given that feminist scholarship and political campaigning over the past 30 or 40 years has ensured that what was once called domestic or sexual violence, and is now more commonly known as gender-related violence, is very much on the public agenda. Academic feminists have also contributed, along with many others, to developing the academic theories and evidence to address the issues. We have shown how male power is deeply embedded in the practices and management of education, including higher education, and how it is only by opening up for debate that we can begin to transform these everyday relations in both the family and the classroom.

But there remains a lack of consensus on how to define, let alone tackle, the problem of intimate sexual and social relations. And there is little public or even academic debate about what kind of support should be provided and how. Should it be preventive, or focus on offering post hoc legal, financial and other forms of redress? And if preventive, how would one begin to develop the skills to navigate these very ticklish relationships and to educate or train professionals to work with both the victims and perpetrators of such violence?

Through our Gap Work project, which is funded by the European Union, a group of academics from England, the Republic of Ireland, Italy and Spain have been developing education and training for front-line staff such as youth, community and social workers and for health and education professionals in universities. Our aim is to improve how those with everyday contact with young people recognise gender-related violence, intervene to challenge it and support and refer those individuals affected.

We question traditional educational models that appear to maintain authoritarian roles and relations in families and in other settings such as community or college. We have reached out to professionals in an array of contexts, although some cultures, identities and norms limit individuals’ receptiveness to the issues and hinder the development and use of our materials. In England, we have discovered frustration, for example, at what school and university teachers who are willing are able to do. The question of educational governance and norms and the audit/accountability agenda is, as with statutory social workers, very inhibiting of the creative use of these materials. And all are constrained by the instability of resources for imaginative projects such as these.

Perhaps even more importantly, we are still seen as outside the higher education mainstream. Our work is not routinely included in the practices of universities or of organisations seeking to challenge and embed equality in higher education, such as the Equality Challenge Unit. This is deeply ironic. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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