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Sexual harassment: a university epidemic?

Despite recent efforts to tackle sexual harassment and assault at university, not enough is being done to solve this issue and support victims. 

What has changed?

‘Changing the Culture’, a report released earlier this month by Universities UK, surveyed almost 100 universities to examine their progress in tackling harassment and hate crimes since a task force was set up in 2016. However, its examination of the positive changes being made in universities is seemingly at odds with stories of sexual assault allegations being improperly handled which have recently come to light. 

The report claims that ‘the work to address sexual misconduct and gender-based violence (GBV) is becoming embedded as part of ‘business as usual’ within some universities’, and provides statistics to reinforce this position. For instance, of the universities surveyed, 81% said they had updated their disciplinary procedures, and 53% had updated their codes of conduct for students in efforts to tackle harassment and sexual assault. Over 80% of the universities surveyed had also improved their support systems for students who reported incidents. 

Another new initiative to tackle sexual harassment and assault has been the introduction of consent training for students in two-thirds of UK universities. Some universities have made these courses compulsory for first-year undergraduates during Freshers’ Week.

But these improvements have just scratched the surface

Despite these positive measures, the issue of sexual assault and harassment is still an epidemic in universities—in the UK and across the world. Indeed, a recent investigation by the BBC revealed that allegations of sexual assault and harassment at 124 UK universities had trebled in the past three years alone. Victims have also reported that they feel far more scrutinised than the alleged perpetrators, as they may be examined by staff who are not properly trained in investigating sexual assault allegations. Admittedly, only 33 of the 124 universities who responded to the BBC investigation said that they used specialist investigators to handle sexual assault allegations. Victims have also claimed that they felt like they had to miss lectures and seminars where there had been no effort to help them avoid seeing their alleged attacker on campus.

Even the positive measures introduced by universities to combat sexual harassment have sometimes backfired, as students at Essex University claimed that a play about sexual harassment on a night out called 'Can't Touch This', which was mandatory viewing for undergraduates, was 'deeply insensitive and damaging' for victims of sexual assault.

Since the Warwick University group chat scandal in 2018, in which a group of Warwick students were banned from the university after their group chat including rape threats directed at female students was exposed, it seems as if universities still haven't learnt their lesson on dealing with sexual assault and harassment properly and effectively.

Mere weeks ago, The Tab revealed that an anonymous University of Birmingham student was told that the university would not investigate her rape allegation as it happened off-campus, and the university only offered to send a letter reiterating the student code of conduct to the alleged rapist—without guaranteeing that the victim's anonymity would be protected.

Even more recently, Cambridge University academic Dr Peter Hutchinson was readmitted to Trinity Hall college less than two years after he had been permanently dismissed for sexually harassing 10 students over 2014 and 2015. This reversal of a previously permanent ban is shockingly reminiscent of the Warwick University scandal, as two of the students involved had their 10-year campus bans reduced to merely one year.

What next?

So, what needs to be done to solve this issue? Clearly, even the positive measures being taken over the past few years have not been enough to reverse the deeply-entrenched rape culture within our society, which has led to victim-blaming and a lack of consequences for perpetrators. Universities have worked hard to improve their external image by introducing consent courses and updating their codes of conduct, but it's time that sexual assault and harassment victims felt the true benefit of these changes by being offered true support—both for their mental health and for the investigations of their complaints. Victims deserve full, professional investigations into their allegations, and they must be supported during their studies and not made to feel like they're being treated as if they had done something wrong. It's time to put this culture of shame and victim-blaming back into the past, where it belongs.

Featured image: Good Free Photos on Unsplash

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