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Sexual Misconduct on Campus: A Closer Look

A third of respondents admitted to experiencing sexual assault, 72% experiencing sexual harassment, with only 7.6% of victims reporting the incidents.

by George Watkins, Jess Warren, Laura Price

Fresher’s 2015 was a difficult period that sticks in the mind for many students. Over the course of 5 days, three women were sexually assaulted on the Cardiff University campus, leading to mass confusion and anxiety amongst many students about how safe they were in town, being encouraged to walk in groups.

The perpetrator of one of the incidents involving the assault of a 20-year-old student, was arrested and imprisoned in early 2016 (which was reported on by Gair Rhydd), but many memories still remained for many students. Despite the incidents being resolved, it was clear that

Sexual assault and harassment have hit the headlines both nationally and internationally over the past few months, with many high-profile cases involving figures from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey. Time Magazine elected their Person of the Year to be those courageous enough to report on their personal experiences of sexual misconduct across the globe, including celebrities like Taylor Swift.

Across universities, too, over the past few years, the issue has been gaining increasing prominence, after a number of incidents at universities in Britain and abroad. Resolutions have been difficult to truly implement in many incidents, with the introduction of Consent Classes at some institutions being largely ridiculed, with those held at Cambridge being completely unattended.

The National Union of Students (NUS) conducted research into the issue back in 2010, in their Hidden Marks study, examining specifically women’s experiences of sexual assault, harassment, stalking and sexual violence, in conjunction with charities such as Women’s Aid. Its key findings were concerning. Over a third of respondents felt unsafe about visiting university buildings in the evenings, compared to 3% in the daytime.1 in 7 had experienced serious physical or sexual assault during their time as student, whilst over two thirds experienced some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment in or around their institution. Perpetrators were profiled as being predominantly other students in most categories.

Clearly this is extremely concerning, but much has been done at Cardiff University to try to tackle sexual misconduct. The Students’ Union has a Zero Tolerance Policy to Sexual Harassment called Can’t Touch This, designed to raise awareness of the problem, as well as encouraging students to report it. Also, since the 2015 Fresher’s incidents, a Safe Walk Scheme has been implemented across campus, helping students return home safely from club nights, as well as the Safe Taxi Scheme in partnership with Dragon Taxi.

It is important to stress that this is not a problem going under the radar. Our aim in producing a survey was to both assess students’ attitudes after these schemes had been introduced, as well as to gauge general experiences. While the sample size is smaller than the NUS survey, at 250 respondents, the results are intriguing, and highlight clear areas for improvement, by both students and authorities.

The key findings were that:

Attitudes:

  • Students tended to feel safer at a club night in the Students’ Union than on a night out in town.
  • Opinions varied hugely about the ability of Cardiff University authorities to handle cases of sexual misconduct adequately, as well as perceived support ranking at only 5/10.
  • Students seemed unsure about whether other Cardiff students would intervene if they witnessed an incident of sexual misconduct take place, seeing a spread from 1-10.
  • A clear lack of information had been disseminated on the topic, with most students replying in the region of 1-3 of their satisfaction.

Experiences:

  • 72.4% of respondents confirmed that they had experienced sexual harassment.
  • 33.6% had experienced sexual assault.
  • Only 7.6% reported the incident.

It is worth noting that when asking students about their experiences, the survey was completely anonymous, and offered a trigger warning at both the beginning of the survey and before the questions discussing experiences. We advised students to answer only if they felt comfortable doing so, and to seek help from Student Support if needed.

Overall, the results demonstrated a need for a cultural change across campus, with both an increase of information available, as well as perhaps more accessible reporting. Clearly many students have experienced sexual misconduct, and more needs to be done by both students and authorities to tackle this head on. With this in mind, our results will be used to hopefully make an impact across campus.

What does the data mean for university life?

With slightly more dispersed results, the majority of students stated they felt safe at an SU club night, although over 72% of students reported they have been victims of sexual assault. The location of this assault was not asked, and as such, we cannot say whether this occurs more in clubs and venues in the City, or in the SU.

We allowed respondents to give their own voice at the end, which provided some interesting data. Where some students stated they felt safest in the SU, this was not the case for everyone. Reported were cases where security staff had failed to assist women who were drunk and distressed, resulting in them being sexually assaulted on their way home alone. Reports of this nature are shocking, and highlight the importance of security staff facilitating the needs and concerns of students whilst in the SU.

Arguably, the SU has attempted to boost student safety at night, with the trial of a Night Bus last year, the safe taxi scheme carried out in partnership with Dragon Taxis, the Safety Walk provided by Cardiff Volunteering, and the Safety Bus, which has the local police involved. However, for events of this nature to still take place, and students not always knowing they have these safety options available, the message of student safety needs to be better communicated.

Respondents also placed an emphasis on the huge crowds at an SU club night, and how this meant that Security were less likely to take claims of harassment seriously, as well as a lack of evidence that can be found from CCTV cameras if the rooms are busy. Other experiences within the SU resulted in the union sending out a link to the “correct” way to report on the assault, following this, they had no involvement. This suggests that students desire a more involved approach from the SU to help them access appropriate support if they are a victim on assault/harassment.

There was also mention of a taboo surrounding sexual assault, whereby one respondent said that by telling her friends, she was ostracised from the group, and as such, would not tell her current friends. This response is of importance, as it suggests that more open dialogue is needed surrounding the issue of sexual harassment and assault among peers. If students cannot turn to their own friends for support after facing an instance of sexual assault, the question needs to be asked as to why, and how can we alter this to create a more supportive community.

In regards to counselling services for victims, students felt as though compulsory education around the topic should be provided to students. Yet there was a positive response to the SU counselling services, although the limited number of sessions was seen as negative, and the fact that students were then left to rely on charities with long waiting lists.

From the provided data, this suggests that the majority of students responding have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. Arguably, this shows that there are issues that need to be addressed surrounding the presence of sexual assault/harassment among the student population.

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  • Cardiff University’s Student Support and Wellbeing have also launched a specialist trained team called the Disclosure Response Team to support students who have been affected by violence and abuse, including sexual violence. You can search violence and abuse on the Intranet for more information, and there is a disclosure response tool under the Disclosure Response Team page.

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