Chapter 1: Record
“Victoria” is on a night out with her friends at the student’s union. They are singing, laughing and dancing. It is a regular thing for them to do in a space that feels safe.
Then it happens, and Victoria’s world is turned upside down.
Every year, thousands of young men and women head off to university – some of whom are leaving their parents for the first time. Free from responsibility, they are carefree, living some of the best years of their lives.
But, this is not every student’s story.
The Breaker’s #AssaultOnCampus team spent four months investigating the number of sexual assaults on university campuses in the south of England.
According to a survey conducted as part of our investigation, it emerged that one in every four students said they, or someone they know, had been sexually assaulted on university property.
We also found that 281 sexual assaults had occurred over the past three years – a figure unreported until now.
Almost 90% of students do not report sexual assault
90% of students surveyed did not report incidents of sexual assault to the university. One respondent says this is because the universities “don’t care”, another felt “it didn’t seem like their business” or “it didn’t seem important enough”.
Universities do not share a common set of procedures for recording sexual assaults. Staff are not always properly trained and students can be hesitant to come forward.
This leads to a disparity between reporting figures, as reflected in our statistics. For example, Bournemouth University answered zero when asked how many sexual assaults had occurred on their property. But, from our own research, we uncovered 14 alleged incidents.
Victoria and her friends are dancing in a circle. Then she feels someone standing behind her. “I give him a quick jab backwards to say, this is my space, that’s your space, leave us alone”, she says. “Next thing you know, there’s a hand literally between my legs, grabbing my vagina.”
She does not know what to do. She decides to walk away from the incident with a friend and composes herself. She is not okay with what just happened.
She finds a female security guard and explains the incident to her. “She gets the manager, who takes me upstairs to the CCTV room. By that time, they have managed to pull up the CCTV – you can see exactly what happened. The manager turns around and said ‘we know who that is’. They pull him out.”
Victoria’s attacker was banned for three months – but that was not the end of it.
Data obtained from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to the nine police forces in the south of England also shows that survivors are reluctant to report their experiences to the police.
96% of sexual assaults on university property go unreported to the police
96% of sexual assaults on university property go unreported. It is therefore clear students do not talk to authorities – it is unclear why.
Some say it is because of the emotional stress involved. Others fear they could lose everyone around them by talking.
In almost every case, it is clear that students see a barrier to reporting – either to the police or their university.
There are a number of reasons why students do not report, ranging from discomfort with the system to unawareness that any support exists.
The statistics from the 29 universities vary greatly.
For example, between 2015 and 2017, the University of Surrey recorded 31 sexual assaults on their property. This is the highest in the south of England. But this does not tell the full story. The university told us they had included instances where students had told campus security staff about assaults – something the majority of other universities did not do.
*Bournemouth, Winchester and Royal Agricultural university all stated no complaints had been made between 2015 and 2017 and so do not feature on the above chart. Plymouth university cited “small numbers”.
Although our investigation focuses on the stories of Victoria and Sophia, men can also be targeted by sexual predators. At Middlesex University, there were four cases of sexual assault against male students in 2017.
Our survey also revealed five further male survivors. None of them reported the incident to the university, one commented they had “zero faith in the institution to protect male victims.” Another said “as a man they’d laugh in face.”
It should be noted that incidents of sexual misconduct are not all student on student. One anonymous respondent to our survey says she was assaulted in a lecturer’s office, when “he put his hand up my skirt.”
Anna Bull is a prominent campaigner for greater awareness around staff sexual misconduct in higher education.
She believes universities need to make it easier for students to speak up if they are experiencing this.
“Students are sometimes dissuaded from reporting, especially when there isn’t a single point of contact.
“Nobody wants to receive these reports, but students should know where to raise concerns.”
The FOI requests sent to universities also asked for information about the number of staff trained to deal with incidents of sexual assault.
As with the number of reported assaults, the figures for each institution differ significantly.
According to our data, the higher an institution’s number of trained staff, the more likely a student is to report.
For example, the University of Kent has the third highest number of trained staff working to prevent and support survivors of sexual assault. In the FOI sent to this investigation, the university say they recently appointed a wellbeing advisor specifically for sexual assault and harassment. 25 members of staff are also being trained as ‘Sexual Assault Responders’, who react to out of hours incidents. The university ranked third for number of reported incidents.
Like Victoria, “Sophie” is out having a good time. She is at friend’s house party, celebrating.
Although Sophie had gone to the party with friends, she does not know the majority of people there.
One guy sits beside her on the sofa and starts trying to flirt. What seems innocuous at first quickly takes a sinister turn.
Mandi Barron is head of student services at Bournemouth University. She says reporting can be difficult for students.
“We hear of formal reports from students, but often they don’t want to take the matter further,” she says.
“Students sometimes feel as if they might be partly to blame if they’ve been drinking too much, which of course is not a valid excuse at all – sexual assault is never acceptable.
“Students also might feel ashamed – they might not want their families and friends to know.
“They might just want to get on with their lives.”
Such advice offers little solace for those who have been assaulted and want to seek help. As an anonymous response to our survey explains: “I didn’t know where to turn. My tutors couldn’t help me.” On the whole, our survey found that students had ‘zero faith’ in universities.
The guy keeps trying to chat Sophie up, which she does not think anything of. “Then, he kisses me”, she says.
There are people in the room, but that does not stop him. “During the conversation, he decides to put his hands up my skirt, which isn’t okay. He’s feeling my thigh, he goes up, he starts trying to get in to my underwear. So, I stand up.”
Sophie decides to sit back down and give her attacker a second chance. “I want to make it clear that I was saying no. But he starts talking to me again – he says he knows that he’s being forward. He tries to touch me again and, this time, he makes contact with my vagina.” Shocked and upset, Sophie runs to the bathroom – she does not want anyone to see her crying.
The next morning, she goes straight to see the head of her course. Unfortunately, they have no idea how the reporting process works. “From the get go, I sensed there isn’t going to be much in place to help me out”, she says.