Chapter 3: Prevent
Victoria is back at the students’ union. She is singing and she is dancing, but this time there is not much laughing.
She sees her attacker has been let back in. Her heart rate quickens, her breath shortens. “If someone had told me it would have be fine”, she says.
Do you know what consent is?
That is the question posed to students at Royal Holloway, University of London, where workshops have been set up to raise awareness around sexual misconduct. Although the young men and women at the Egham-based campus in Surrey do not have to go, Natasha Barrett, the students’ union’s president, says: “Attendance is usually surprisingly high. Normally, the gender split is equal. The workshops aren’t currently compulsory, but a lot of universities have made them that way and we would like to do the same.”
These workshops are part of the ‘I Heart Consent’ initiative, a nationwide scheme run by the National Union of Students. Students who attend are taught about safe spaces, rape culture and so-called “slut-shaming”, as well as taking part in a series of activities.
The #AssaultOnCampus investigation asked 29 universities across the south of England about the measures they take to prevent sexual assault.
Sam Thomson is an undergraduate psychology student at Bournemouth University. As part of his dissertation he is running the ‘Red Flag’ campaign, an innovative attempt at getting people on university campuses to talk about sexual assault.
Sam asked students and staff at his university to anonymously write down their experiences of sexual assault on small red flags. He then planted the flags in a prominent position on campus for people to read.
Feeling frustrated, Sophie gives up. Despite some support from her university, she still is not convinced they were prepared for a complaint of sexual assault.
“They were desperate to get me away from the complaints department. I think they really didn’t want me to report it, they wanted me to go to the police. I felt like they wanted their hands clean of it.”
Having been encouraged by her course leader initially, she thinks staff training could be the answer. “If students are more inclined to go to lecturers and say, this horrible thing has happened, then something needs to be put in place so that the academics can say I know where you should go, I know what you should do.”
Each university included in this investigation is marked against five criteria, identified as best practice for combating sexual assault. These include anonymous forms to allow students to report sexual assaults; special targeted campaigns; specialised online advice pages; the provision of external contacts, such as the police or sexual assault referral centres; and any other measures, such as preventative training for staff and/or students.
For example, Middlesex University have a system for anonymous reporting. There are also several on-campus ‘disclosure’ points, where students can go for advice and support. This encourages students to report in person.
On the south coast, the University of Southampton run several initiatives to highlight issues with consent, such as ‘Expect Respect’. They are also one of several universities to take part in ‘Bystander Intervention Training’, a nationwide campaign championed by Universities UK. A spokesperson for the university says: “[The campaigns have] had a positive impact in terms of more students reporting sexual harassment to the university. We expect to see this trend continue in light of national and international cultural changes with regard to sexual consent.”
Further to this, Canterbury Christ Church University took a big step in educating students about consent. It has recently launched a three-year long ‘Respect’ campaign, which aims to get students involved in conversation about consent and take a pledge to prevent ‘bullying and harassment of any form including that of a sexual nature’.
“If you don’t have these sort of campaigns, you don’t start those kinds of conversations.”
Ruth Wood, student communication manager at Canterbury Christ Church, says: “It’s important to raise awareness so that we are comfortable in having the important conversations and that we work together so that we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. If you don’t have these sort of campaigns, you don’t start those kinds of conversations.”
Universities are expected to take care of their students. Ethically there is no doubt there is a duty of care. However, the legal obligation is less clear cut.
Fiona Waye, a senior policy lead at Universities UK, says: “Universities have a duty under the 2010 Equality Act which means they have to have a due regard to promote good relations between students, to combat discrimination.”
But Mandi Barron, head of student services at Bournemouth University, still thinks it is unclear. “It’s an interesting question – it depends on who you talk to, including the lawyers. The definition of duty of care will differ”, she says. “What is definitely agreed is that universities have to signpost students when they know there is an issue. We don’t have a duty to provide services, particularly, but we do have a duty to help students if it’s something that impacts upon their academic study and their university life. Communication with students is a real challenge, and I don’t know what the answer is.”
She says Bournemouth University does not run compulsory workshops on consent because they are not sure that people would listen. “Anything we do, we want students to engage with it because they want to engage with it.”
Anna Bull is part of ‘The 1752 Group’, which aims to end staff sexual misconduct in higher education. She stresses the need for clearer reporting systems. “There needs to be a sector-wide response. Would you know where to go if something happened?”, she aks. “Universities are many years behind where they need to be.”
Sophie describes sex crime as an earthquake. “It all happens in a matter of minutes, but it’s all of the rebuilding and the people coming in and out and trying to fix things, and the families that have been torn apart. That’s where the pain is.”