#MeToo on campus: Universities investigate sexual assaults themselves
As more women speak up over sexual violence, universities are cracking down on ‘lad culture’
On Katia Baudon’s very first day as a fresher at Kent University in September 2015, she says, she was raped by a fellow student. The experience was so traumatising that she ended up having to retake her first year. Baudon reported the attack to the university authorities in February 2016. They put her in touch with the police. Her case was not prosecuted as the police decided there was insufficient evidence because she had reported it four months after the event.
Baudon, who has successfully finished her second year studying English and French law, says she felt unable to tell her university when the assault first happened. “I felt isolated and had panic attacks on a daily basis,” she explains. She was galvanised into action, though, when she heard another student had said she had been assaulted by the same person.
Baudon now campaigns to stop female students who are sexually harassed or assaulted from suffering in silence. She says the first step to this is for universities to stamp out “lad culture”, which, she believes, fosters a climate in which physical attacks are more likely and where women feel disempowered.
The National Union of Students says that after years of denial, the #MeToo era, in which women are increasingly speaking out about harassment, has pushed UK universities to admit they have a serious problem. Some are exploring new ways of tackling sexism and sexual assault, and some are even investigating incidents themselves when the police cannot help.
Alongside her degree, Baudon works in a student nightclub, and this leaves her in little doubt that universities have a real fight on their hands. “There are a lot of issues in the club around unsolicited touching. Men feel they can do it because they are drunk and the other person is drunk,” she says.
Baudon recently helped a student who was humiliated after a sports team had circulated a “revenge porn” video of her. “She didn’t feel she could make a formal complaint,” Baudon says. “These men think this stuff is funny because no one has taught them otherwise.”
Two hours away up the M11 at Cambridge University, Rachel McHale, a first-year French and German student, is also finding sexism pervasive: “You hear laddish, misogynist banter so often that you become used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK.” Drunken groping is also commonplace, she says.
McHale, who is the women’s officer at Magdalene College, says that Cambridge drinking societies are among the worst offenders. “They say it’s tradition, but when you see how some of them behave towards women that just isn’t an acceptable excuse,” she says.
A survey published in March found that 70% of female students had experienced sexual harassment or assault. The study, by Revolt Sexual Assault and the Student Room website, also noted that only 6% of these students reported the incident to their university.
Hareem Ghani, the NUS’s national women’s officer, says just a few years ago some institutions told union officers that consent workshops were not necessary, that women were exaggerating claims or it wasn’t the responsibility of the university to educate students. “But the last year has been a real catalyst for people looking at misogyny on campus.”
We live with everyday sexism and sometimes people just don’t think about the way they act and talk
Kieran McCartan, UWE
Baudon’s university, Kent, has successfully lobbied the local licensing committee so that bars and venues in Canterbury now have to promise to tackle verbal and physical sexual abuse or assault as part of their licence agreement. And the students’ union has been funded by the police to train staff in all these places – from the bars and clubs that students frequent to the burger joints they call in at as they stagger home afterwards – to intervene when they see someone being harassed.
Ruth Wilkinson, the president of Kent students’ union, explains: “Groping happens everywhere. And I’ve had negative experiences of reporting it, where I’ve told a bouncer and they just shrug. This is the sort of thing we are trying to change. That idea of entitlement, that you can touch someone’s body without consent, is so dangerous.”
She gives an example of how the staff training paid off in a branch of McDonald’s in June. A young woman came in late at night who was frightened because she was being followed by a man. “She spoke to someone serving and they’d been trained and knew how to look after her. She was having a panic attack and they supported her and then got her a special safe taxi.”
Some student unions are focusing on working with their sports clubs. At Worcester University the rugby team were asked to join one of the psychology department’s new “bystander” courses on how to intervene to stop harassment. Dr Gillian Harrop, a senior lecturer in forensic psychology, who runs the course, says: “It takes just one person speaking up to change a group dynamic.”
But she adds: “Students are not good at describing what constitutes sexual assault. For instance if someone was being what they call ‘a bit handy’ in a club, they would just see it as something that happens. We have been very clear that unwanted touching is not acceptable.”
Will Colson, chair of Worcester’s student rugby club, says he was sceptical beforehand, but the course really benefited him and his teammates. “It was all about having the confidence to say to people that something’s not right, and how to wade in even when the student behaving badly is 10 pints deep.”
The University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol is to make “bystander” workshops like this compulsory for all students from September. Prof Steve West, the university’s vice-chancellor, says institutions tread a fine line because they aren’t parents, and students are young adults trying to establish their own identity.
But UWE is one of a growing number of universities to make clear that if the victim doesn’t want to go to the police the university will investigate and take action against offenders itself. “It is not a Club 18-30 holiday. We expect students to engage and commit to their studies and university life in a supportive community. It should be a positive transformational experience for all.”
West has called in a criminology professor, Kieran McCartan, to work with students who have made inappropriate comments or groped someone, before their behaviour escalates. “We’ve developed a programme that is about getting them to think about what they’ve done and why it was inappropriate,” McCartan says.
“There is a group who just don’t care, and their sexual attitudes are indicative of broader problems. But some haven’t thought about how they come across. We live with everyday sexism and sometimes people just don’t think about the way they act and talk.”
Some academics argue that sexism and assault on campus are just a reflection of where we are in society as a whole. But Prof Deborah Johnston, pro-director for teaching and learning at Soas University of London, disagrees: “We know from reports across the HE sector that sexual harassment is widespread, and that isn’t just student to student it is also staff to student. In my view, there is something about the nature of a university environment that enables this kind of harassment to be perpetuated.”
Soas was one of the first universities to publish a clear zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and violence, at the start of 2016. It gives mandatory consent training to all undergraduates, provided by the union, so that students are more likely to listen, as well as training for staff at all levels.
“It matters that we involve everyone as it’s about culture change and you need to give everyone the tools,” Johnston says. “If a victim decides not to make a complaint to the police we have said clearly that we will investigate and can take disciplinary action. But the whole point is not to end up there. That happens because everything else has failed.”