In March, I wrote a wee something for this website arguing why sexual harassment at UK universities was still a big problem and why it was the universities themselves who were to blame for the continuation of this endemic. Half a year later, it’s still a problem.
An NUS survey released last week revealed that one in four students at UK universities have been the victim of unwelcome sexual advances. What is more, 60 per cent of the 2,156 respondents said they were unaware of ‘any codes of conduct implemented by their university or students’ unions that prohibit or tackle sexual conversations, sexual comments, unwelcomed sexual advances, group intimidation and verbal harassment.’
Now, I consider myself to be a glass half full kind of guy; I firmly believe that a problem shared is a problem halved and let’s make no mistake, sexual harassment is a huge problem for UK universities which they are struggling to address. That being the case, I have a few handy pointers for universities when it comes to tackling this problem, given that most of them seem to be so short on ideas themselves.
Don’t promote club nights that encourage sexual harassment
Now this might seem an obvious one, but you’d be amazed how many universities still don’t get this. Well, actually, if you’re at university at the moment the chances are you won’t be that amazed because you’ll likely have seen an event being advertised first-hand.
Warwick University women’s officer Alys Cooke told the Guardian last year: "When people come up with fancy dress themes, there's a pressure to have at least one option so that the girls can get their clothes off.”
After a widespread backlash from student societies and media to events within and promoted by student unions, few universities are brazen enough to create and market such events as they would have been in previous years. Certainly, events organised and hosted by students’ unions which degrade women are being reported in the mainstream media noticeably less than they were in previous months.
However, that does not mean that these events are a thing of the past. Many nightclubs still host events which are directly marketed at students by using misogyny, meaning there is financial pressure on student unions to follow suit to or risk losing business. As a result, your average ‘Rappers ‘N’ Slappers’ night out at a student union could well rear its ugly head once more, and will continue to do so until student unions take a proactive stance against it and prioritise the wellbeing of students above filling their coffers.
Avoid token gestures
There is only one thing worse than a university which does nothing about sexual harassment on campus, and that is a university which pretends to do something about it but in reality does sod all.
A considerable number of UK universities have, in the last 18 months, made a big show of banning the Sun newspaper from being sold on campus. The No More Page 3 campaign is a worthy one when it comes to tackling the issue of media misogyny, but universities banning the Sun from being sold on campus is a classic example of renewing student railcards when the rent was due yesterday.
It’s not the only one, either. A large number of universities have banned bars within their students’ union from playing Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines song.
Again, it’s great that they recognise the degrading way women are portrayed, but what would be even better is if the universities considered how this contributes to the young men who attend their universities viewing women as their inferiors, their property and how this leads to inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances.
Young men who approach women in aggressive, animalistic fashion with the idea in mind that women owe them attention, ego massages and sexual intercourse behave like that for a number of reasons but, mainly, because they know they can get away with it. A random selection of stories in relation to sexual harassment at universities that I’ve seen over the past few days include anecdotes not just of groping or crude, disrespectful language, but also of the victims reporting incidents to bouncers and being laughed away, and even being told by their student union that there is nothing that can be done. It is all well and good banning Blurred Lines, but these token actions must be backed up by a more fundamental recognition that crude cultural inferences feed a systemic problem of modern student life.
Be proactive, not reactive
Counsellors are great, but their purpose in life is to help repair damage which has already been done. Sometimes that damage is inevitable and could not have been prevented. Sexual harassment on campus does not fall into that category.
“I would set up advice surgeries for people who have been the victims of sexual harassment…” is a reply I’ve heard from more than one aspiring student executive member at an election hustings, answering how they would tackle sexual harassment at the university, and it’s really not good enough.
Even more disturbing, it was near as dammit the response of UK universities chief executive Nicola Dandridge to the NUS survey on sexual harassment.
Ms Dandridge, on September 15, said: “Universities take the welfare of their students very seriously and have internal rules relating to student behaviour. Where students require support, there are a variety of services on hand to listen to students including welfare officers, advice centres and university counselling services.”
Personally, I would have thought that someone near the top of the organisation representing every UK university would have a little better understanding of the issue of sexual harassment at British universities than a 21 year old SuperDry wearing, Subway-munching Media Studies undergraduate, but perhaps I’m expecting too much.
NUS President Toni Pearce took a rather different view, and was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: “Harassment is rife on campus but we still keep hearing from universities that there is no fear, no intimidation, no problem – well this new research says otherwise. Now I say to universities everywhere – the passing the buck approach of “not on my campus” is completely unacceptable. Students unions and universities must work together to create campuses that are welcoming, safe and supportive to all.” Quite.
The only problem with that otherwise very sensible logic is that universities can’t deal with a problem which they have convinced themselves doesn’t exist. Last year, the NUS produced a comprehensive report on women’s experiences of sexual harassment at university, entitled That’s What She Said - detailing some of the main causes of sexual harassment on campus. This should have been the catalyst for universities taking the sexual harassment problem at their establishments seriously. Yet that didn’t happen. Why?
It’s not looking good for UK universities just now. Students, particularly women, don’t feel safe around campus or on a night out down the union. There is no getting away from it - universities have failed their students.
So where do they go from here? What is ‘being proactive’ when it comes to sexual harassment on campus? I’ll give you a clue. Literally anything.
In a welcome step, Cambridge University revealed in June that they were considering introducing compulsory classes for students on what is sexual consent. That’s a start, but only if Cambridge actually go through with it and make it compulsory.
Other universities would do well to follow suit. They need to realise that pretending that they don’t have a problem with sexual harassment is a lot worse PR than the bad PR they’re so desperate to avoid by burying their collective heads in the sand on the issue. Indeed, universities need to work out some ideas and educate their students in more than the subject they’re majoring in. Only then can they change attitudes and make their universities comfortable, safe places to live and study, where people can thrive and achieve their full potential.
By Alex Shilling