The question students should ask: how is my university tackling sexual violence?

Student unions have played a vital role as universities tackle the problem of sexual violence on campus. This matters because the experience of sexual violence can take a serious toll on both one’s physical and mental health. The more students hold their universities to account for how they deal with the problem, the greater the influence they can have in making campuses safer. Here are four questions that students can ask their universities.

Do they publish the number of reported incidents?

When students have the confidence to report sexual misconduct on campus, it shows trust in the institution. This is something to consider when comparing the number of reported incidents between universities. The key test of a university community is what it does with reports and what the outcomes are.

The chances are that sexual violence at universities will typically be underreported. If numbers of reported incidents are not high, then universities won’t, at the very least, be able to ensure that personal and educational support is in place.

Survivors of sexual violence can feel a loss of personal agency, and failure to ensure their autonomy will only reduce reporting rates. We need to ensure that reporting parties are able to exercise informed choices.

Does the university fund Rape Crisis services?

You’ll often hear universities repeat their corporate mantra of “we take sexual violence very seriously”. But we’ll surely be judged by what we do, rather than what we say. Such statements can come across as vacuous compared with clear examples of proactive action, such as funding Rape Crisis services.

Links with local specialist services can also strengthen university policies and practices. There is specialist expertise available at sexual assault referral centres, including STI screening and the option to be examined for forensic health evidence.

Are there consent talks for new students?

Introductory talks for freshers increasingly include consent classes, as well as other kinds of disclosure training for both staff and students. These are necessary because staff and students hearing disclosures may be uncertain about what the most helpful response is to traumatic events. Some universities also offer bystander intervention training, helping people to intervene competently and confidently if they witness sexual violence. In the UK, Rachel Fenton and Helen Mott have led innovative work in this area, funded by the NHS.

Are students actively encouraged to report sexual violence to the institution?

There are several ways to test whether a university’s reporting procedures are clear enough. Whether students actually use them is one example. Another is a university’s website: if, for instance, a student searches for “rape” on the site, does that take them to academics with expertise in the area, or (more appropriately in such cases) to the reporting procedures within the university?

There need to be rigorous investigative procedures in place should a reporting student wish to take matters down a disciplinary route at university. None of this precludes, but importantly does not require, students to report to the police. But while the criminal justice process continues to fail survivors of sexual violence, a cultural shift at universities would be an important first step.

  • Graham Towl is professor of forensic psychology at Durham University. He is the joint author (with Professor Tammi Walker, Huddersfield University) of Tackling Sexual Violence at Universities (Routledge).



By Graham Towl