What does ‘taking sexual violence seriously’ look like at universities?

Submitted by Miranda Prynne on Fri, 02/09/2022 - 01:01
Rates of sexual violence in universities are the highest in society, ONS data show. So what actions must universities take if they are serious about tackling this pernicious problem?
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Sexual violence rates at universities, for women in particular, are the very highest in society, according to Office for National Statistics data. Students arrive at university and find themselves in a new environment and usually living away from home and familiar social contacts.

So, it really is not good enough simply to declare that sexual violence happens everywhere and calmly relinquish responsibility for it, far from it. Investment in support and prevention is desperately needed and often lacking. What does “taking sexual violence very seriously” look like at universities in policy and practice? I ask this question because this is often the institutional claim made in the event of things going wrong. Below are a set of ideas for positive change that we can act on now and not wait until there is institutional criticism and poorly treated victims.

1. One key principle when addressing our problem with sexual violence at universities is to assume that things are going wrong rather than going right. This is the first hurdle – acknowledgement that there is a problem. One red flag for (prospective) students is when universities equate low reporting rates with low prevalence rates. This routine conflation does not serve the safety of students well, far from it. Low levels of reporting are perhaps more plausibly linked to low levels of trust in the university leadership team to address the problem if reported.

2. Once our problem is acknowledged we may then much more successfully address it. First, we need to increase reporting. Taking active measures to drive up reporting rates is a key sign of a university taking tackling sexual violence seriously. For example, poster campaigns across the campus and training staff and student leaders on how to respond to disclosures.

3. Resources should follow priorities. In view of the high prevalence levels we would anticipate a high level of resource being committed to addressing sexual violence. A great question for university open days is asking how much resource is exclusively dedicated to this area. University leaders should be able to point to significant resources focused upon addressing sexual violence, including full-time staff focusing solely on this area of policy and practice whether as case managers, support or counselling professionals and investigators.

4. Transparency is key to increasing reporting rates, and making reporting the “new norm” may well contribute to prevention too.

5. Financial investment in specialist sexual violence counselling services is another indicator of a leadership team taking addressing sexual violence seriously. Information can be routinely included in student support information and conveyed via posters and screens across the campus.

6. Having a clear investigatory process with trained investigators is another policy essential if claims of “taking sexual violence very seriously” are to stand scrutiny. Such investigators may either be in-house or external – there are pros and cons to both. The key thing is that such investigators are appropriately trained and able to write independent reports.

7. Reporting the outcomes of investigations more widely to the university community, whether the complaint is about student or staff perpetrators, is another hallmark of an executive leadership team taking its responsibilities to the rights of victim or survivors seriously, and on a par with the rights of the perpetrators. Currently many universities seem to duck this and appear, in practice, to give primacy to the rights of the perpetrator over those of the victim or survivor – for example, by privileging their right to privacy over the victim or survivor’s need to know the outcome.   

8. University leaders lobbying for greater regulation in this area – eg, through the Office for Students – would be another sign of an institution actively working to tackle sexual violence.

9. Clear messaging to the wider university community that investigations when undertaken will base their findings on “balance of probabilities” evidence may also be crucial in encouraging reporting.

10. It is vital to remain victim focused when driving decisions, for example, whether or not to proceed to a formal investigation. Not all survivors or victims will wish to proceed to formal investigatory processes – indeed, most won’t, most likely. However, surely, all need to be offered counselling and educational adjustments should they want them, if they report being subjected to sexual violence.

By talking about our work on student safety, including our problem with sexual violence, to prospective students on open days we may contribute to creating a culture of transparency whereby reporting is the norm. This will not only aid those needing support and help them to get it but also may deter prospective perpetrators whose modus operandi is often predicated upon “not getting caught”. Balance of probability evidence gives victims and survivors more chance of getting justice than through the courts but does not preclude subsequent court action. In short, we need to make universities perpetrator-unfriendly environments, and thereby boost our contribution to tackling sexual violence more broadly.

Graham Towl is professor of forensic psychology at Durham University. He was the pro vice-chancellor chair of the sexual violence task force at Durham University in 2015 to 2016 and recently co-edited the book, Stopping Gender-based Violence in Higher Education: Policy, Practice.

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Rates of sexual violence in universities are the highest in society, ONS data show. So what actions must universities take if they are serious about tackling this pernicious problem?