We can’t run away from rape

A shocking film about the extent of sexual assault at US colleges has just toured UK universities. It is high time we took this problem seriously in Britain, says Nicole Westmarland, while US academic Jennifer Doyle warns that a paranoid overreaction poisons campus culture

November 19, 2015
Silhouette of woman with face covered by person's hand
Source: Alamy

We found that sexual assault was pervasive on campuses in the US and that schools were covering up these crimes to protect their reputations

The prevalence of sexual violence on US university campuses has long been a very high-profile issue – as attested to by the release this year of a film on the issue, called The Hunting Ground. But in recent years – and this year especially – the UK is beginning to give it the attention it deserves.

In January, a poll on behalf of The Daily Telegraph found that 31 per cent of female students had experienced “inappropriate touching or groping”. In May last year, further hand-wringing was prompted by the arrest of the president of the Oxford Union, Benjamin Sullivan, on suspicion of rape (the charges were later dropped), while a Guardian investigation in May this year revealed that seven of the 24 Russell Group universities do not systematically record allegations of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus, and five do not have specific guidelines for students on how to report such allegations.

Finally, in September, the government announced that a task force would be established to tackle violence against women, and “lad culture” more generally, on UK campuses. The task force, led by Universities UK and expected to report in autumn 2016, is not the first to examine the issue. Twenty years ago, a committee led by Graham Zellick, who was then principal of Queen Mary University of London, established the principle that universities should report serious offences, such as rape and sexual assault, to the police, and should not attempt their own investigations. But a review is long overdue, not least because there are concerns that the Zellick principles – devised in the wake of an allegation of rape that King’s College London had attempted to deal with internally – are inconsistent with modern equality and human rights legislation, which appears to impose a duty on universities to investigate breaches.

Some of these alleged inconsistencies were tested in a legal case that made headlines this summer. Elizabeth Ramey, a former graduate student at the University of Oxford, alleges that she was raped by a fellow student in 2011 and feels that her allegation was not taken seriously and investigated fully by the university. Although, like many rape victims, she was reluctant to report the incident to the police, she did so in order to initiate university disciplinary proceedings against her attacker. However, those proceedings stopped when the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take the prosecution further.

Based on a 2010 NUS survey that found that 7.4 per cent of students experience rape, attempted rape or assault by penetration, Ramey estimates that, statistically, 700 of her fellow female students at Oxford would also have experienced a serious sexual assault during their time at university. In her request for a judicial review, heard in May, she argued that the university’s policy not to investigate allegations of serious sexual assault except in extremely limited circumstances was unlawful and indirectly discriminatory given that most victims of this type of offence are women. Her request was refused on a technicality, but the judge highlighted that the issues raised were significant and that harassment policies could be unlawful if applied inflexibly.

Ramey is one of a wave of student activists in the UK, most of them sexual violence survivors themselves, who have been shouting louder over the past few years about the dismal responses by universities to allegations of sexual assault. As someone who writes and speaks out in this area, I am often contacted by students from a range of universities for advice, and they all speak of a conflict between wanting to preserve the reputation of their university and a feeling that justice has not been done, combined with a desire to prevent others from going through what they have gone through.

In contrast to the US, whose first study of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus was published 30 years ago, we in the UK are just starting to understand the true scale of the problem. The 2010 NUS survey, known as “Hidden Marks”, concluded that violence in college and university settings was widespread. Respondents also complained about sexual comments made by staff – one recounted a lecturer joking about how to cover up spiking a drink with a rape drug, while another recalled a lecturer showing her a picture of a former student and telling her that he fantasised about what could have happened between them.

Similar allegations are involved in the long-running controversy surrounding Colin McGinn, who resigned as professor of philosophy at the University of Miami in 2013 amid allegations that he had sexually harassed a graduate student, Monica Morrison. The university eventually concluded that the pair had been involved in a consensual relationship, but in October The Huffington Post revealed that Morrison was suing the university over its alleged failure to investigate the allegations properly. According to the paper, McGinn sent emails and texts to Morrison in which he talked about having an erection, asked her for a “hand job”, revealed that he had had an “erotic” dream about her and suggested that they have sex over the summer.

The “lad culture” – or “rape culture” – that exists within universities is clearly exemplified by many freshers’ events and initiations to university clubs. These often include language or tasks that go far beyond promoting alcohol abuse and casual sex, into the realm of promoting sexual violence. For example, one freshers’ club night was called “Freshers Violation”, and it featured on its social media site a video in which students were asked how they were “going to violate a fresher tonight”. One responded: “She’s going to get raped.” Another said: “I’m going to fist them in the arse. They won’t even know.”

Some universities have already started to take action. The University of the West of England has led on the development of an “Intervention Initiative”: an education programme aimed at all students. Scottish Women’s Aid runs a similar scheme called Get Savi, and Oxford’s Good Lad Workshop is aimed specifically at male students, especially those in influential positions such as sports captaincy.

Rather than seeing participants as potential victims or perpetrators, such “bystander education” programmes aim to empower individuals not only proactively to intervene to prevent sexual assaults from being perpetrated (such as moving a male friend away from a female who seems intoxicated to the extent that she is unable to consent), but also to intervene to change the social norms in their peer group (such as by challenging someone who is telling rape jokes, or arguing against an organised trip to a lap-dancing club).

Studies from the US, where such programmes have been around for far longer, indicate that they have positive results. A five-year evaluation by the University of Kentucky, for instance, found that the self-reported frequency of sexual violence more than halved among students who had taken one programme, known as “Green Dot”.

Yet despite such progress, The Hunting Ground, which toured UK campuses in October and will air on 19 November on CNN in the US, is still replete with victims of sexual assault on US campuses crying out to be believed. The students reveal that it was very difficult to work out who to report their allegations to, and that when they did report them, they were asked not to talk to other students about what had happened, and were discouraged from reporting it to the police. University administrators also asked inappropriate questions, such as why a woman who had been unconscious at the time she was attacked hadn’t fought off her assailant.

Meanwhile, academics and administrators tell the film-makers about the pressure on them to keep the number of reported cases of sexual assault low by making them difficult to report. “Rape is seen as a public relations management problem,” one remarks. Kirby Dick, the film’s director, told me that this was one of the reasons behind the decision to make the documentary. “We began investigating and found that sexual assault was pervasive on campuses across the US, and that schools were repeatedly covering up these crimes to protect their reputations,” he says.

Even institutions with appropriate policies in place seemed to be failing to implement them. According to The Hunting Ground, 78 reported sexual assaults at the University of California, Berkeley between 2008 and 2013 led to just three expulsions. At Stanford University, 259 reported sexual assaults between 1996 and 2013 led to just one expulsion.

We in the UK need to avoid making the same mistakes. We need to bring complete transparency to bear, and we need to accept that sexual assault happens at our universities, acknowledge that it is the perpetrators who are the problem and be clear about how to submit a formal report and access support.

The latter should ideally be offered in partnership with a local rape crisis centre, so that students have someone external to talk to if they are still deciding whether to make an official report. At Durham, trained rape crisis counsellors work from the university’s counselling service one day a week, and all staff are trained in responding appropriately if someone tells them they’ve been raped. It is by no means straightforward, and universities will face dilemmas when students refuse to make an official complaint – especially when the perpetrator has a pattern of sexual offending, making further offending highly likely. But institutions are already facing these dilemmas and are making decisions on a case-by-case basis without transparent decision-making structures or policies – nearly always by staff with little knowledge of sexual assault.

And let’s not underestimate the symbolism of adopting transparent policies. It says to prospective students: “We cannot guarantee that you won’t experience sexual assault here, but we can guarantee that any reports will be taken seriously.” It says that the days of pushing the problem under the carpet are over. Let us hope that the current publicity and the UUK review mean that it will not be long before we in the UK can make such claims with confidence.

Nicole Westmarland is professor of criminology and director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse at Durham University. She is also a member of the Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force, and is author of Violence against Women – Criminological Perspectives on Men’s Violences (Routledge, 2015). The views expressed are not necessarily those of Durham University.

Fear and anxiety contaminate our thinking about the possibilities of university life

The campus security nightmare scenario in the US revolves around two phenomena: the statistical anomaly of “the rampaging shooter” (who could be anyone), and the statistical fact that any female student can become a rape victim.

The genderedness of risk is stark: every male student is a potential threat; every female student, a potential victim. It may feel strange – wrong, even – to juxtapose the extraordinary mass shooting with the omnipresent crisis of campus sexual assault. Fear and anxiety about both, however, contaminate our thinking about the possibilities of university life – and every now and again, these two stories converge.

Take, for example, The Hunting Ground, an earnest documentary about the recent student-led anti-rape movement at US universities. The title wilfully conflates “the shooter scenario” with the ubiquity of sexual assault, and equates rape with murder. And the film itself subordinates the legal activism of women who have been sexually assaulted to the sensationalism of the individual story of those assaults. It is as rigorous in its feminism as an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

A recent study conducted by the Association of American Universities found that one in four women is subjected to sexual assault while in college. Although researchers debate the methods used in these kinds of surveys, as well as how the data solicited from survey participants are interpreted, even the most conservative estimates regarding the frequency of sexual assault describe what is clearly an intolerable situation. A very problematic lesson is often drawn, however: that women put themselves at increased risk of sexual violence by going to college.

The Hunting Ground opens with a montage of young women opening their college acceptance letters. One after another quivers in anticipation, surrounded by loving family, as she reads. Her eyes fill with tears, she jumps up and dances with joy when she learns that, yes, she has been accepted by the school of her dreams. Oh, the irony! For, in The Hunting Ground, these women are lambs going to slaughter.

This idea – that the campus is where rape happens – contributes to a dangerous public discourse that fetishises women’s innocence and vulnerability, and whips the public into a frenzy over the spectre of the man who does not belong on campus. This is not to say that sexual assault is not frequent on college campuses. It is. But it is also frequent within the context of relationships with men. “Women are far more likely to be raped than men”, however, makes an absurd headline, and the media are not generally interested in research that shows that college graduates are less vulnerable to sexual violence than people who never go to college because, really, who cares about the poor?

When we look at the world through the Law & Order lens, we find ourselves fixated on the idea that campuses are dangerous places, especially for women, and that hypervigilance is required. Mixed into our work email are campus security memos, animated with instructional videos advising us of our options should an armed lunatic appear. The popular complaint regarding the fragile psychology of students who ask for “trigger warnings” masks the troubling fact that the infrastructures shaping our universities are increasingly defined by paranoia. “By being prepared, alert and relaxed,” a recent article in the trade magazine Campus Safety explains, “you are best able to observe your environment and notice changes that may pose a risk.” Like stalking victims, staff are encouraged to lean on intuition when surveying their environment. “Intuition is not magical,” the article continues: “it is an educated hunch based on your knowledge and experience. Nothing is more intuitive than survival.” Such instruction instrumentalises prejudice. It gives permission to people (here, campus security officials) to indulge their “intuition” regarding who looks out of place. This has severe consequences for members of the university community.

The fear of sexual assault becomes a blunt-force administrative tool used not to open up the university to more people but to wall it off. During 2011’s Occupy Movement, for example, when the chancellor of the University of California, Davis, Linda Katehi, mobilised the police against peaceful demonstrators – which led to a well-documented, miserable incident in which seated students were pepper-sprayed – it was with the aim of protecting female students. In the ensuing report into what went on, Katehi explained that she had been afraid of what might happen if the students spent the night in the camp they had set up: “We were worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside without any knowledge of their record…If anything happens to any student while we’re in violation of policy, it’s a very tough thing to overcome.”

Katehi’s apprehension of being “in violation of policy” is a reference to “Title IX”, federal law that entails that if an assault is found to have happened in the wake of a university’s “deliberate indifference” to a clear risk, the university may become embroiled in an expensive thicket of lawsuits and federal auditing. But student demonstrations against rising tuition costs are not generally associated with an increase in rates of sexual assault.

There is a tremendous difference between the media’s presentation of the problem of sexual violence and feminist work on this subject. We need to interrogate the sexual politics that structure our understanding of risk and vulnerability. We need to ask why, in this moment, we are romanced by the idea of the campus as the place where rape happens, instead of as a public resource that makes rape less likely.

Jennifer Doyle is professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. Her latest book, Campus Sex, Campus Security, was published by Semiotext(e) this month.

Help students help themselves: The Intervention Initiative

There can be no doubt that sexual violence, harassment and stalking are significant problems for UK students. But while raising awareness of the problem is important, it will not be enough to effect the fundamental cultural change we need.

Nor will that change be effected through piecemeal efforts or by sermonising to students. International evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of so-called bystander intervention programmes, which teach students to see themselves as agents for social change and to speak out when they witness problematic behaviour.

Public Health England commissioned our multidisciplinary team at the University of the West of England to develop such a programme, which we call the Intervention Initiative, specifically for UK university settings.

Based on a review of the best available evidence and freely available online, the programme is designed to be delivered to all students via eight hours of workshops led by experienced facilitators. In addition to raising awareness and challenging myths, it equips students with the skills to intervene safely to prevent violence and abuse, such as by calling out sexual harassment or spotting a risky situation in a nightclub and identifying how best to intercede. It also empowers students to promote healthy social norms so that problematic behaviours are challenged and become socially proscribed.

Additional, demonstrable positive benefits of doing the course relate to graduate employability and the student experience. In their feedback, students rated all aspects of the course at UWE as excellent, and several other UK universities have decided to run it this academic year.

The National Union of Students and individual students’ unions are already running powerful campaigns, but these need to be part of comprehensive university-wide strategies to combat sexual violence and harassment. Vice-chancellors must not pass the buck. If they were all to mandate the Intervention Initiative, then we could transform the culture of a generation.

Rachel Fenton is a senior lecturer in law and Helen Mott is a research fellow at the University of the West of England. Dr Fenton is available for consultation on implementing the initiative. Contact rachel.fenton ​@uwe.ac.uk

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Reader's comments (1)

The true rates of sexual assault on US colleges, and the anti-scientific agendas that ignore the true rates, are already described here: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2015/04/11/what-rolling-stone-magazine-should-learn-from-social-science/ True findings: the rates of sexual assault on campus have actually declined year on year since records began; also, women are safer on campus than off; for another thing, men are more likely to be victims of crime on campus.