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What do students really think of sexual violence at university?

Students at Durham University conducted research into students’ perceptions of sexual violence and found that many aren’t even sure what it is

Thea Winn-Reed


Kate Watson


Simran Khemany


Lavinia-Iuliana Sandu


Gloria Lui


Chanel Randles

June 17 2019
What students think of sexual violence at university


Sexual violence is a major issue in our society and affects many students. Research by Revolt Sexual Violence found that 70 per cent of incidents reported by students happened on campus.

The public attention this area gets has recently increased with media coverage of the Warwick group chat scandal or documentaries like The Hunting Ground becoming more common and popular. Despite the increased focus on the issue, sexual violence is a significantly underreported crime.

We argue that universities have a duty of care to us, their students, to create a safe and supportive environment where we feel comfortable and enabled to report and receive help for any act of sexual violence we might have experienced. Many universities have attempted to change the way they deal with this issue including policy changes, training and clarity in reporting. 

But despite all the changes that universities say they have done, have they really made a difference to the safety and support students feel? As psychology students at Durham University, we conducted four studies into sexual violence, based on students at Durham University, investigating different areas of sexual violence and the way students feel about the issue. Here are some of our key findings. 

Barriers to reporting and a lack of awareness about what sexual violence is and the available support systems

One study explored students’ attitudes and experiences of sexual violence and found that 56 per cent of students had experienced some form of sexual violence, with women experiencing more incidents than men.

However, a point of concern that surfaced was the lack of awareness of what constitutes sexual violence. Students did not view incidents such as wolf whistling or groping as sexual violence, but they are. Increasing awareness of what sexual violence is, is crucial to raising reporting rates and therefore ensuring students are safe at university.

There was also a lack of awareness about what support systems were available for victims and students mentioned certain barriers to reporting. 

One was the confusion caused by the presence of alcohol. Incidents that occur while someone is intoxicated frequently create misunderstandings, which then lead to a lack of reporting.

Another was the victim’s relationship to the perpetrator as sometimes they do not want to report their friends or acquaintances because they do not want to ruin friendships or affect the perpetrator’s university experience. This is particularly worrying as perpetrators are more likely to be known to the victim.

Another barrier to reporting was the effect that the reporting process has on the victim’s mental health, through reliving traumatic experiences. 

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Gender differences in perception of sexual violence and bystander intervention in a UK student population

One way that sexual violence could be reduced on campuses is by students looking out for each other. Bystander intervention programmes teach ways in which students can intervene before, during and after such situations. However, literature has shown that men and women prefer different methods of intervention.  

For example, women can be deterred from intervening if they fear the aggressor, while men may refrain from intervening if they know the perpetrator.

Men also prefer to confront the aggressor, while women are less likely to intervene directly.

The study also found that student bystanders may not consider aiding the victim after a situation occurs. Whether this is because most victims do not speak up or simply because most students do not believe there is much to be done, we must keep in mind that every bit of support offered can be pivotal. 

For example, you may help the victim find a hospital, or help them report the incident. Alternatively, when witnessing such incidents, you may feel more comfortable calling the police or someone you know, rather than intervening yourself. 

Cultural differences 

International students may have different opinions and attitudes on the topic of sexual violence. One study investigated whether culture would influence students’ attitudes on reporting incidents, looking at 1) British students, 2) Chinese students, 3) British-born Chinese students, 4) Other multicultural students.

Previously, it has been suggested that students from Chinese heritage may be less inclined to report incidents of sexual violence because in the Chinese culture “mianzi” (translated as face/reputation) is important. This stems from the idea and perception that experiencing sexual violence might bring shame on to their family, thus leading students to not report incidents.

However, in this study, many Chinese students mentioned that they would choose to report incidents because they want “justice for oneself and others”. It seems that this reason overrides the idea of shame.

On the other hand, the British-born Chinese students did not seem to think the same. They held similar views to the British students, feeling uncertain and perceiving the incident as not serious or even blaming themselves for getting into that situation.

It is important for students of all cultures to understand that by reporting incidents of sexual violence, you are not only protecting yourself but also others, by preventing the perpetrator reoffending. Yes, the process of reporting may feel uncomfortable, especially if you feel restrained by cultural values and social norms, but the university will have support systems to help you through this tough time. There is nothing shameful about your experience. You are a survivor.

Reporting and disclosing

Evidence suggests that students can sometimes be confused about the difference between a report and a disclosure. Durham University has a system where students can choose to either disclose an assault, where they can confide in a member of staff and they have the choice whether they wish to formally report and initiate an investigation, or they can report an assault.

If a survivor reports an assault then the university has an obligation to conduct its own investigation into what happened. This is also an area where students become alarmed as it has commonly been believed that the amount of evidence needed in these investigations would be the same, or very similar, to the amount of evidence needed in a criminal trial.

Some of our research has shown that students would be deterred from reporting an assault if they believed they had a lack of evidence. As students we believe that it is important to familiarise and educate ourselves with the sexual violence and misconduct policies that any university has in place as our best protection is knowledge. 


Despite all the institutional changes to policy and procedures, looking at current students’ opinions and experience of sexual violence shows that students seem to lack awareness and understanding of sexual violence, as well as the reporting procedures, based on polls of students at Durham University.

Universities need to do more to raise awareness about the support systems available to create a culture change. This change in culture also needs to be wrought by us students, to challenge ingrained social norms that allow this damaging behaviour to occur within our community and to deter potential perpetrators.

A university environment that allows open, honest and supported discussions from both students and staff could be effective in shifting the culture and encouraging people to come forward with their experiences. 

Some of the research highlighted here suggests that universities could consider developing gender-specific bystander intervention programmes to encourage students and survivors to support each other, with the aim of increasing reporting of sexual violence.

The issue of culture also should be considered in terms of prevention and increasing reporting because of the differences in attitudes across different ethnic groups. This could also lead to an increase in awareness of cultural differences between students, understanding that friends may deal with this area differently.

A university that listens to its students can gain valuable insight into the ways that the policies and programmes it runs are viewed by those that need them the most, benefiting current students and enabling changes and developments for the next generation of student voices.

As students ourselves, hoping to leave a thought-provoking message to fellow or prospective students, we would encourage you to take the time to understand how your university tackles sexual violence and how you can be a catalyst for change. We need to work alongside our institutions to create change, increase awareness and to feel encouraged enough to speak up to protect ourselves, and those around us. 


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