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An education in sexual violence: Universities and sexual bullying.

Higher education may well present the perfect storm of factors that can drive sexual harassment and other sexual violence.

In the UK in 2010 1 in 7 female students reported experiencing a serious physical/sexual assault at University and 68% had experienced verbal or non-verbal abuse. Perpetrators were generally male students, known to the victim and 4 in 10 victims of serious sexual assault, victim/survivors told no one. The stats also show that the first few weeks, heavy with alcohol related socialising may be the most risky time or ‘redzone’.

We know that Universities are not different from the rest of society where sexual harassment and bullying is common. The data also tells us that the same fault lines of power and non-conformity map out who does it and who is targeted by gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

On the flip side, higher education may present a crucial opportunity to intervene and reverse the social norms that incubate sexual offending. Student activists have proven to be a great resource driving reforms to date through protest movements such as @Revolt Sexual Assault and National Union of Students work.

So what is behind the recent series of mishandled cases at Universities such as Birmingham, Cambridge and Warwick and the wider reluctance of to take this issue on? In the UK’s now commercial higher education market, perverse incentives to openly address sexual harassment on campus means ‘reputational risk’ prevents open acknowledgement of the issue or clear victim centred remedies. Previous guidance encouraged Universities to leave it to the police. When incidents are reported research shows they tend to be treated as one offs with little reference or understanding of them as part of wider culture of gender inequality.

Work by the Universities UK and campaigning groups (@1752_group) have ensured that standards have been reformed to increase reporting, promote bystander intervention and establish clear social norms. But, even now, reporting procedures fail to serve victims treating them as ‘strangers to a process that is strictly between the university and the accused’ @1752_group. Relationship policies still do not require obligatory disclosure of personal relationships with students but leave it to the discretion of the staff member involved based on their assessment of vague concepts such as ‘conflict of interests’.

The role of group based, male dominated societies has been linked to the dominance of ‘lad culture' that make ‘performing’ of masculinity central to social status. "Lad culture seems to dominate some aspects of university life, notably certain social spheres" (such as sports societies) many students tend to accept it as the way thing are: it’s normal; unremarkable” (Jackson + Sundaram, 2015)

Higher education is somewhere people both live and work and the environment is dominated by hierarchical systems where staff clearly have power over the student body. Steep power inequalities are particularly concentrated in the post graduate and early career system that relies heavily on ‘patronage’ or the favouritism of key academics. Evidence that from Power in the Academy report suggests 4 in 10 current students had experienced at least one sexualised behaviour from staff

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine reported that sexual harassment in STEM work settings is related to male dominating, hierarchical power structures centred around powerful individuals. But this is how much of academia works, some suggest higher education is integrally shaped by the cultural support for a specific kind of predatory heterosexual masculinity.

The best form of evidence, based on a review of all the academic studies which are then assessed for their scientific strength concludes that intervening in Higher Education is too late and that most efforts to change behaviour relies to heavily on one-off, short, college-based programmes such as bystander training. There is no clear evidence these work in actually reducing the amount of sexual violence happening. Limited evidence points towards gender transformative work with young men around creating a range of ways to ‘be masculine’ lead by organisations such as @Promundo_US.

So, we have to make the connections between how some groups show they are ‘men or ‘women’ and that University or higher education is a time when this becomes more important in young people striving to find an identity.

At the University of the West of England we are promoting a whole University approach focusing on the results of our survey of sexual violence, mapping prevalence and the gap between real and reported levels, responding, enforcing and preventing.

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