New study exposes student experiences of gender based violence at university

By Harriet Piercy

Published Apr 12, 2021 at 02:29 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes


‘Go to university, it’s a safety net and launch pad into your career’. Of course, in many ways, this typical statement of advice from whoever one’s advisor might be is true. However, for many other reasons, the reality is entirely different. University requires students (who are predominantly under 25 years old) to essentially ‘move’ into the buildings, the libraries, the campus as a whole. But this shift in mental and physical settlement in turn creates an automatic handing over of trust from student to system, which unfortunately means all that the ‘system’ entails. New research is finally shedding light on the darker side of what students actually experience, here’s (so far) what we all need to know, and then stop.

Empowered Campus, a collaborative movement of survivors, academics, university staff, specialist support staff, lawyers, and students (past and present), released a shocking report which was based on the tales of anonymously disclosed events from students that experienced instances of gender and race based violence at university. The research project was led by Cybil, a student market research company and consortium of 26 UK Students’ Unions, and created by 8,106 students in higher education filling out anonymous surveys from 124 universities.

As stated in the report, “Throughout the last decade sexualised misconduct within higher education has remained high on the news agenda and whilst we have seen some improvement, there is so much left to learn.” Much left to change too, because with students finally going back to their university lives (especially those who will be ‘trapped’ in residential halls) away from home after COVID-19 induced restrictions, Empowered Campus expects that the stories of harassment may soon be concluded as “higher than ever.” Those who live in halls will still be facing the pandemic’s restrictions, but this time not with the shelter of family or guardians, and will therefore be left to their own devices.

According to past student experiences that were disclosed in the online survey, universities did not in fact have support that students needed when it came to reporting a case of sexual harassment or assault. One anonymous student admitted to the research team that “After being sexually assaulted at university, it became clear that the university didn’t have sufficient support service in place to help me deal with my experience.”

In 2010, the National Union of Students (NUS) launched its Hidden Marks report, in which one in seven female students reported to have experienced a physical or sexual assault. Compared to 2020, almost one in five students claimed to have experienced just sexual assault alone. Over half of all students who experienced this sexual assault (and sexual harassment) experienced it on campus, which is unquestionably the place they should be able to seek help, but how can they possibly seek help from the source of the problem?

According to the research, the gender differences are immense as well—71 per cent of male students who are sexually assaulted deal with it entirely on their own, without turning to any staff or university help line for support. 25 per cent, which is one in four female students experience sexual harassment as far as the researchers know, and then 20 per cent, which is one in five female students experience sexual assault.

What is really worrying is the difference between the expectation and reality of the situation. Empowered Campus revealed some horrible truths: it asked female students who didn’t identify as survivors of sexual assault where they would go for support if they were to experience it, and 43.5 per cent answered that they would go to the university support services offered, but when the research team asked female students who did identify as survivors of sexual assault where they actually turned to for support, only 3.4 per cent engaged with the university support services.

Intersectional understanding is a huge part of the study as well, it states that “in order to close this gap in disclosure, it is essential that our analysis of these experiences recognise the impact that identity and circumstance have on the way that gender based violence manifests.” Evidence shows that the lesbian, gay and bisexual student community is 15.1 per cent more likely to experience sexual harassment and that students with a self reported disability are 11.8 per cent more likely to experience sexual harassment.

The study also shows that “white students reported being sexually assaulted in the Student Union (SU) at twice the rate of BME students, which may reflect who is using those services, and are more likely to use SU support,” because the “black and minority ethnic students are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted in a classroom, lecture room, lab or theatre compared to their white peers.” This also translates that black and minority ethnic students are over twice as likely to experience hate crime in any circumstance compared to their white peers.

2020 has brought incredible changes in almost every aspect of our lives, as well as the attitudes we have towards one another as humans, but as the world continues to unravel from a cocoon of change there is a greater concern that what we have learnt will be left behind. However, a few topics are certainly not going to be forgotten—in fact the opposite is going to happen. Thanks to the new generation of activists and protesters fighting against inequality, harassment of all kinds and endorsing freedom of speech, permanent change is looking likely, regardless of previous broken systems. That being said, student experiences of gender based violence at university are currently under supported, and Empowered Campus has a few suggestions for us all to take on board, because these students are the future of society as we know it and their mental health is fundamental to the overall health of all of our futures.

The study suggests that first of all, approaches to gender based violence should not be solely driven by disciplinary processes. “Universities should strive towards a trauma informed, survivor centered approach. In recognition of the unique approach needed, external services should be brought in.” Such as Empowered Campus, for example.

Also to be immediately improved: “Response and prevention work in this area should be a priority in light of COVID-19. Students are currently experiencing lockdown in halls, a high risk area. We can expect a sharp rise in cases of sexual harassment and assault.” The study continues to recommend that “Universities should move away from a ‘tick box’ approach which can create gaps through which survivors can fall through. A holistic approach is needed. One that clearly links policy formation, care pathway creation, training and engagement.”

The first step to solving a problem is, in any circumstance, identifying it in the first place. And so, “In order to engage student survivors from all backgrounds, an intersectional analysis is needed to identify which communities the support is and isn’t reaching.” It is important that this research is heard and therefore implemented into universities all over the world, because without it, voices will not be heard, and the problem will voraciously persist, grow and spread.

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