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The battle against sexual violence on campus

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From the moment you step on to your campus as a first-year undergraduate student, there are many things you may want to become: a dedicated fundraiser, a political force, a student journalist, a competitive sportsperson, or an entrepreneurial leader. No one, however, applies to university to become a victim of sexual violence.

Nevertheless, that is a reality for many students in the United Kingdom today. The NUS survey ‘Hidden Marks’, published in 2010, which addressed female students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault, found that one in seven respondents had experienced a serious sexual or physical assault during their time at university. Many subsequent NUS polls addressed the issue of ‘lad culture’, which it defines as “a group or pack mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption and ‘banter’ which was sexist, misogynistic, or homophobic”. A 2015 poll found that 28% had witnessed sexual harassment during their first week of term, while 17% had been subjected to it.

A 2015 poll found that 28% had witnessed sexual harassment during their first week of term, while 17% had been subjected to it.

Critics of this focus on ‘lad culture’ on university campuses claim that it trivialises the issue of sexual violence. A report released in October by Universities UK was cautious of the term, saying that it “could lead to the assumption that misogyny, racism and homophobia are specific to an alcohol/sporting culture when they were present across all cultures and demographics”.

The report also details the lack of effective reporting and recording mechanisms available to victims of sexual violence, leading to official numbers being under-representative of the scale of the issue. Currently, Warwick’s official statistics show that there were fewer than five instances of sexual assault in the academic year 2014/2015. However, if the NUS and Universities UK findings are to be believed, the likelihood is that the true figure is far higher.

The Universities UK report reveals that under-reporting and the “absence of clear, robust reporting mechanisms” are commonplace among institutions who responded. Warwick have stated that the numbers given reflect “formally reported alleged incidents of sexual assault on campus” alone and “would not include cases which were not reported through formal procedures”.

This system, like that of many universities in the UK, is based on a report both the NUS and current Warwick Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft have called “outdated” and more protective of universities than victims

Earlier in the year, an anonymous writer came forward and spoke about their experience of being raped on campus, and of how university procedure disempowers staff from being able to take any conclusive action. “The system prevents them from doing anything,” they told the Boar. “I don’t blame any individuals of specific wrongdoing. They were equally let down by an ill-informed system and a lack of genuine procedure.”

This system, like that of many universities in the UK, is based on a report that both the NUS and current Warwick Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft have called “outdated” and more protective of universities than victims. The Zellick Report was produced in 1994, following a high-profile case in which a student was suspended from King’s College London following an accusation of rape by another student. The accused was later found not guilty and the university was forced to pay damages. It suggests that institutions should not intervene in cases of situations of sexual violence or harassment to avoid similar situations. When NUS launched its #StandByMe campaign in 2015, which called for the repeal of the Zellick guidelines, then-Women’s Officer Susuana Amoah said: “We are facing a national crisis of sexual assault on campus. Universities are systematically flawed when it comes to reporting systems, disciplinary procedures and survivor support.”

The NUS are also responsible, in conjunction with Sexpression UK, for the I Heart Consent campaign and the implementation of consent workshops in to student unions across the UK. These classes were infamously met with equal approval and disdain by Warwick students, in a moment which perhaps most clearly defined consent culture on campus. While several sports clubs, such as University of Warwick Men’s Hockey Club, praised the workshops as a “great success”, Politics and Sociology student George Lawlor made national headlines with his article ‘Why I don’t need consent lessons’ for the Tab. In the piece, George describes the training sessions as “a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face” which “implies I have an insufficient understanding of what does and does not constitute consent”.

[Chloe Wynne] told of how consent education is beginning to be implemented into the curriculum of two departments of Warwick.

However, Warwick are trying to learn from this experience. Last month, Warwick SU Welfare and Campaigns Officer Chloe Wynne appeared on Victoria Derbyshire to discuss the issue. She praised the campaigning work of the NUS, described current investigations into the problem as “an opportunity for the stars to align”, and told of how consent education is beginning to be implemented into the curriculum of two departments of Warwick. Meanwhile, in an interview with the Boar, Stuart Croft has said that he has been meeting with Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre to discuss whether or not an independent advisor may be placed in Warwick Student Union.

The release of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Hunting Ground last year – which details the effort of survivors of sexual violence in the USA to hold universities accountable for what is portrayed as mass cover-up in higher education – sparked worldwide discussion regarding the role of universities in addressing these issues on their campuses. Can Warwick, and the UK higher education sector as a whole, learn from the bravery of Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark, and can we confront the hunting ground in our own country?

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