Sexual violence on campus: time to put an end to doing nothing

From calling out sexism to empowering students, we must be far more proactive in tackling offences, argues Graham Towl

November 3, 2016
James Fryer illustration (3 November 2016)
Source: James Fryer

It is perhaps appropriate that Universities UK published its new guidance on handling allegations of sexual assault in a week that the US presidential candidate Donald Trump suffered further in the polls as a result of his alleged history of sexually assaulting women.

However Trump fares in next week’s election, the brutal truth is that the overwhelming majority of sex offenders get away with their crimes. We know that criminal justice systems, on the whole, do not serve the needs of victim-survivors at all well. For instance, when comparing the data in the Crime Survey for England and Wales with police records of reports of sexual violence, there is a very evident under-reporting of sexual offending.

There are those who argue, on both sides of the Atlantic, that the focus on sexual assault at university is misplaced: that sexual assaults are no more – and are possibly less – likely to occur on campus than anywhere else. But it isn’t quite that simple. Young women aged 16 to 19 are statistically most at risk. Given that a sizeable proportion of students at universities are young women, and that we know that there is under-reporting, it is difficult to see arguments for a “do nothing” approach.

I therefore very much welcome the publication of Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce Examining Violence against Women, Harassment and Hate Crime Affecting University Students, which makes a number of sensible recommendations. The legal advice set out in UUK’s Guidance for Higher Education Institutions: How to Handle Alleged Student Misconduct which May also Constitute a Criminal Offence should be of practical help to universities, too.

It was also in this “do something” spirit that I chaired the Sexual Violence Task Force at Durham University in the 2015-16 academic year. The rationale for appointing me, at pro vice-chancellor level, to lead on this work was to send a positive message to both students and staff that the executive considered sexual violence an important issue to address. The UUK report has also emphasised the importance of involving senior leaders.

Our aim was to come up with new policies, processes and practices; all were tested in terms of the extent to which they empowered the victim. So, for example, in keeping with the UUK guidance, allowing the victim-survivor to decide the level of reporting they wish to make is important. Some wish to report to the police and some don’t, but universities have a crucial role in ensuring that they can make informed choices and that appropriate support is always in place. Victim-survivors need to know that they can use the services of sexual assault referral centres before deciding whether or not to have police involvement.

During the task force’s 12-month lifetime, reports of sexual violence at Durham more than doubled. This is very common when concerted efforts to address such problems are given institutional visibility. And, in view of what we know about under-reporting, it is a good thing. It may also be viewed as a positive sign that our students trust us with such sensitive information. University leaders have nothing to fear from increased reports. A problem surfaced is a problem that can be addressed. There is a real danger in taking misplaced comfort in low reporting rates.

There may be a risk that publicising the number of reports puts off parents and prospective students from applying to universities. Yet if potential perpetrators know that it is the new norm to report sexual violence, this may contribute to deterrence and ultimately reduce the number of incidents. In addition, if we know about individual cases of sexual offending, we can most effectively provide educational and personal support to victim-survivors.

Preventive initiatives undertaken in universities, such as bystander intervention programmes, are key to creating an environment where sexual crimes are routinely challenged. After all, students ultimately take on positions of power in society, so it is vital that they are versed in the need to demonstrate respect for all. Indeed, this is what the sometimes-criticised “sexual consent workshops” have as their anchor point.

Tackling what has become known as “everyday sexism” may well also help in establishing an environment where it is no longer acceptable to behave disrespectfully towards each other, either sexually or otherwise. The net impact of all this may very well be fewer sexual offences, while those who do perpetrate such crimes will be more likely to be imprisoned. That will be especially true if the police, victim support charities, university counselling services, student representatives, health providers and university leaders all work together: my experience of working with sex offenders makes abundantly clear the need for such a multi-agency approach.

Of course, a case can still be made that all of this is unduly protective and will infantilise students. These arguments have their place in the discourse within university communities. But – and it is a big but – such arguments sound, at best, insensitive, when we consider the damage inflicted by sexual offending on the under-counted victim-survivors. Surely the issue is not overprotectiveness but the fact that, previously, we have not been protective enough.

Graham Towl is professor of psychology at Durham University. He was previously chief psychologist at the UK’s Ministry of Justice and pro vice-chancellor chair of Durham’s Sexual Violence Task Force. He is here writing in a personal capacity.

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Print headline: It’s time to end our laissez-faire attitude to sexual violence

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