Sexual assault documentary must spark debate at UK universities

Louis Theroux’s interviews with those accused of sexual assault at US campuses should be a wake-up call to UK universities who have ducked this issue for years, says Graham Towl

March 13, 2019
Dartmouth College

The Louis Theroux documentary “The Night in Question”, screened on BBC 2 last week, will undoubtedly elicit a range of responses from critical to more supportive, such is the nature of the challenging area of tackling sexual violence at universities.

A perfunctory social-media search on responses to the programme reveals plenty of such arguments and in some cases understandable outrage.

But as I watched the documentary I found myself asking, what are the next steps in addressing the challenging area of sexual violence at universities? And in particular what could usefully be gleaned from the Theroux coverage.

The screening of the programme added to the visibility of the issue of sexual violence at universities. And it is important for us to talk about sexual violence at universities.

Surely now we are at a stage of understanding in the sector that it should be the norm to include coverage of tackling sexual violence at universities’ open days for prospective students and their parents.

So it is not a time for timidity from university governing bodies, who will want to hold senior teams to account for ensuring that sexual violence is tackled at universities. Presumably, UK university governing bodies will be routinely seeking data on the number of cases of sexual violence disclosed and reported, and also information on what actions have been taken with respect to both reporting and reported parties. 

We surely need to unequivocally “own” the problem and, whatever our good intentions, be mindful of how defensive it may sound if university statements routinely refer to sexual violence as a problem outside universities too.

I would argue that we need to keep as our focus what we are doing and how we are tackling our problem as university communities.

One pervasive theme underpinning much of the Theroux coverage was in relation to the fundamentally important issue of the level of evidence required to inform decision making about individual cases.

The fundamental point here is that criminal courts have a higher threshold of evidence than internal investigations into student conduct. And that is what we would expect. The sanctions available for each body are of a different order.  

This was illustrated in the Yale case referred to in the programme, where we were told that the criminal court had found the reported party not guilty. However, the internal university investigation appears to have found against the reported party.

This point about the level of evidence needed sends powerful messages out to university communities. Universities who are, in my view, rightly embedding such a level of evidence into policies and procedures need to ensure that this is more widely known, especially among the student body.

This is especially important in view of the wider societal understanding that, for example, our criminal justice system serves rape victims poorly. Students thinking of reporting may simply assume that that is the default position too for university reporting and investigation systems. It need not be, and in many instances it is not the case.

But this needs to be more widely promulgated where it is the case. To come back to the primary case study that Theroux explored, it is not difficult to see on the evidence presented in the documentary why a disciplinary panel would conclude that it was more likely than not that the reported party had sex with the reporting party without an appropriate consent to do so.

Universities are uniquely well placed to make a difference in tackling sexual violence. We can contribute to prevention, ensure academic and personal support and thus continued educational access.

Graham Towl is professor of psychology at Durham University. He is the joint author (with Dr Tammi Walker) of Tackling Sexual Violence at Universities; An International Perspective, published this month by Routledge.

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Reader's comments (2)

If any student makes an allegation of sexual assault, is this not a police matter? The university should not interfere in the process, it's not up to them to 'investigate' or indeed 'punish' anyone: we have the police and the courts to attend to that. What universities need to do is create a culture in which it is made clear that unwanted sexual advances are not acceptable, where those who allege that they have suffered them are treated with respect and those proven - in law - to have committed them are not welcome, and will be dismissed from the university as soon as they have been convicted.
Thank you. Some students will want to report to the police and they are free to do so. Others simply want support from their university communities whether that is educational, personal or in wanting an investigation into sexual misconduct in much the same way that other types of student misconduct would be addressed.

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