What’s going on in our universities … and what does the crisis around campus sexual harassment say about our society?

by Stacey Dingwall

One of the most worrying elements of Donald Trump’s election campaign was his apparent attitude towards women. Critics have highlighed a wide range of sexist comments made by the now President-elect over the years – comments he now claims to regret and has apologised for.

The continuing problems of ‘isms’

Sexism is just one of the ‘isms’ that we seem unable to get rid of, despite efforts to create a more tolerant and diverse society. We’ve highlighted this several times on the blog this year; from the persistent gender pay gap to an increase in hate crime. Yet it seems we are still frustratingly far from living in an equal society.

Trump’s critics have suggested that it is in fact insecurity that has driven him to make some of his remarks. Although it is true that large numbers of (white) women voted for him, it has also been argued that part of his success is down to “angry white men” who feel threatened by the progress made by women, ethnic and other minorities towards the creation of a more equal society.

Sexual violence on campus

The all too frequent accounts of sexual harassment on university campuses around the world represent a particularly ugly aspect of enduring inequality within our society. While the media may focus on incidents occurring within the fraternity system in American campuses, the problem is just as bad in Britain. In September, a poll conducted by the charity DrinkAware indicated that 54% of the female students they surveyed had experienced some form of physical or verbal sexual abuse.  15% of male students reported similar experiences.

It’s not only male students who are subjecting their peers to this abuse, or female students who are on the receiving end. Last month, more than 100 women – students and academics – shared their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of male university staff.  The stories depict a culture dominated by the male voice, in which women are frightened into silence rather than taking action against their abusers. Many of the victims indicated feelings of futility in terms of reporting their experience, due to the perpetrators’ power and status. Those who did have the courage to make a complaint reported their frustration at the limited action taken.

How is this being addressed?

Recent reviews by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities UK have made recommendations to universities on how to tackle sexual harassment on their campuses. A particular focus has been on implementing policies to prevent and deal with the issue: both reviews found that institutions sometimes didn’t have a sexual harassment policy at all, or it was ineffectively tied in with an overarching policy on bullying and harassment.

Universities UK’s review highlights several examples of good practice from universities in terms of improving the reporting process (the University of Cambridge), implementation of policy (SOAS, University of London), and establishment of taskforces to both raise awareness of and deal with sexual violence on campus (Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force).

More prevention work needed

While it’s encouraging that universities are taking action to respond to this problem, and work is also being done in terms of communicating that campuses should be a safe space for all, the majority of initiatives are focused on dealing with the aftermath of abuse rather than prevention. This is similar to the message often communicated by the media and others that people (predominantly women and girls) should take steps to ‘avoid’ being attacked or raped, rather than communicating to men and boys that they shouldn’t perpetrate these crimes in the first place.

While girls are fed these messages from an early age both at home and at school, there is no similar onus placed on their male peers to learn about consent at the same time. The fact that the debate over the provision of a sex education that is appropriate for the society in which we currently live remains unresolved unfortunately means that these depressing statistics on sexual violence in our universities are unlikely to improve in the near future.

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