A survey from the National Union of Students has found that almost one in five students experienced sexual harassment in their first week of term. After surveying 2,600 students, the NUS reported that 17 per cent experienced some form of sexual harassment in their first week at university, with a further 29 per cent saying they witnessed sexual harassment being directed at someone else.
These figures indicate an alarming and widespread problem across the UK’s universities. Add to this that 61 per cent of first-year students were not aware of how to report sexual harassment at university.
Many Student Unions have strong policies on sexual harassment, invariably to the tune of ‘zero tolerance.’ A great statement, but what does this mean in practice when the majority of new students, those for whom sexual harassment is evidently a live problem, aren’t made aware of how their university processes incidents?
I’m certainly proud of my Union at the University of East Anglia, where campaigns like ‘Never OK’ are run, publicising that sexual harassment comes in many forms, verbal and physical, from strangers and friends alike, and that none are acceptable.
My Union makes it very clear that all reports will be taken seriously, but I’ve experienced a number of unpleasant incidents both on campus and off, and never felt compelled to report it. I don’t think that’s symptomatic of my university failing me. Rather, it seems indicative of sexual harassment becoming so normalised that we’re unsurprised by its occurrence and forgiving of its perpetrators.
Moreover and perhaps more dangerously, we’re nervous to name sexual harassment. It almost feels too severe to think in terms of abuse and the denial of consent when it’s often so familiar. In the past, I’ve witnessed friends sexually harassing others and didn’t even consider reporting it.
Consent workshops reception
Student Unions do a lot of work in trying to tackle these problems at the root, with education. This ranges from campaigns and propaganda, to free workshops which invite students to discuss consent, sexual harassment, and other related issues. It’s unfortunate, then, that free, positive workshops like the NUS’s ‘I Heart Consent’ series are often received so poorly.
A recent spate of Tab articles gained national interest when a couple of male students took to the online platform to express their offense at being invited to Warwick’s ‘I Heart Consent’ workshops, one holding up a sign saying ‘this is not what a rapist looks like.’
Pushing a whole host of issues aside, this is desperately unhelpful in its limitation of sexual harassment as something committed solely by clearly identifiable rapists – whatever they might look like – in isolated and ghastly incidents. The writer uses his attendance at a Russell Group university as an indicator of his obvious understanding of the issues: ‘I already know what is and what isn’t consent […] You’d think Russell Group university students would get that much, but apparently the consent teachers don’t have as high a regard for their peers as I do.’
The writer’s confidence makes it clear that sexual harassment isn’t something he has to worry about. Unfortunately, as the survey says, this is far from the reality for many students who deserve a Union that is alive and alert to these problems, who deserve their welfare to be prioritised above the offense taken by a privileged few.
Stopping the harassment culture
An older NUS survey held that one in seven of their respondents had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault in their time as a student, and 68 per cent had been victim to verbal or non-verbal harassment, including groping, flashing, and unwanted comments.
Clearly assault is not something departed from university campuses. Clearly sexual harassment is rife in many forms that don’t immediately spring to mind when the word ‘consent’ arises. Criticising the free, optional resources put in place for student welfare and boxing harassment up into something done by the select, perverted few, contributes to its invisibility.
In a statement, NUS women’s officer Susuana Amoah said: “Reporting systems for sexual harassment are either lacking or not visible to students in a lot of cases, and this needs to change. We are working with nine students’ unions who have audited their own processes and those of their institutions, and we will be supporting many more to carry on this work until students feel aware of how to report sexual harassment, and safe and confident that their concerns will be taken seriously.”
— NUS UK (@nusuk) October 21, 2015
Stopping sexual harassment can never be the responsibility of its victims. While improving university processes is crucial, we have to take it back to the lives of students and remember that victims and perpetrators alike are subject to the insidious normalization of harassment.
This normalization is what makes it hard to draw lines when behaviour goes beyond what is acceptable. It frames reaction as over-reaction in the minds of those victimised and peripheral. Workshops, campaigns and surveys work to engage with the truths of student experience, and they’re integral to keeping these truths vocalised, to repeating what is and what is never okay.
Those who disagree or feel patronised by these efforts might want to review the statistics and consider what is fuelling their determination to deny sexual harassment, and by consequence the welfare of those so regularly affected.
What do you think? What is the best way to tackle the culture of sexual harassment at university? Have your say in the comments section below.