Confronting and Challenging Sexual Violence in a Collegiate University

Dr Eleanor Spencer-Regan, Assistant Senior Tutor, Hatfield College, Durham, UK

On 17th November 2014, staff, students, and stakeholders from universities across North East England gathered for the 8th North East Conference on Sexual Violence. The theme for this year’s conference was ‘Sexual Violence on Campus’. This blog post explores how the relatively small ‘communities within communities’ created by a collegiate system may both offer greater opportunities for staff and students to address damaging culture and present challenges for individuals wishing to address or report incidents of sexual violence. 

Freshers expect to sit through a variety of talks and information sessions during Freshers’ Week. Fire safety, crime prevention, medical registration, certainly. Perhaps talks about responsible drinking or accommodation etiquette. For freshers arriving at twenty of the thirty eight colleges at Oxford University and twenty of the thirty one colleges at Cambridge University in October 2014, though, there was a perhaps surprising addition to this roster; a compulsory workshop on sexual consent. According to a Cambridge University spokesperson, the training aims to educate students about the importance of consent, and all workshops will promote an understanding of consent as ‘active and willing participation in sexual activity’.

Whilst greeted positively by many, these workshops were criticized by some Cambridge students in The Tab, an online national student newspaper, as ‘very patronizing’ and ‘unnecessary’. Even those students who agreed that such workshops were necessary or desirable expressed worry about how the workshops might be conducted: ‘Labouring the point can in fact weaken the meaning, so the workshop needn’t be long, but it is fundamentally right that it is there.’

Others took this as an opportunity to attack the Cambridge University Students’ Union Women’s Campaign which is supporting, promoting, and in some cases facilitating, the workshops. One male fresher was quoted in The Tab article as commenting, ‘I think it’s a sign that this CUSU, which I’ve heard a lot about already, is in the pockets of the feminist agenda.’

That any student should consider that the issue of sexual consent is one that is of import or concern only to those with a ‘feminist agenda’ is, you could argue, exactly why such workshops are necessary. Whilst the majority of rape or sexual assault victims are indeed female, The Guardian reported that between 2009 and 2012 there were 9,000 male victims of rape in the UK.

This is the attitude – that the issue of sexual consent and sexual violence is an issue only of concern to ‘other’ people (women, feminists, activists, rape victims, sexual assault survivors) – that the US ‘It’s On Us’ awareness campaign, launched by President Obama and Joe Biden on 19th September 2014, seeks to address. The campaign asks individuals (students and staff alike) to help put an end to sexual violence on US college campuses by signing an online pledge

‘To recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault.

To identify situations in which sexual assault may occur.

To intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.

To create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.’

President Obama launched the campaign with the declaration, ‘It is on all of us to reject the quiet tolerance of sexual assault and to refuse to accept what’s unacceptable.’  The ‘It’s On Us’ campaign is predicated on the belief that every student and member of staff at an HE institution has a right to feel safe, supported, protected, and respected. Any community in which a sexual assault or case of harassment against one of its members goes unremarked, unreported, or unpunished is not a safe, respectful, supportive community for any of its members.

Creating and maintaining safe, supportive, and respectful scholarly and social communities where all members can thrive and flourish is, of course, at the heart of the aim of a collegiate university. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s no coincidence that it is two collegiate universities that are leading the way in offering sexual consent workshops to freshers in the UK. Whether or not we believe that compulsory workshops are the most effective way to raise consciousness, they are at least a pro-active attempt to address what is clearly a problem at UK universities and in wider society.

A recent NUS (National Union of Students) survey found that 37% of female respondents and 12% of male respondents had experienced ‘unwelcome sexual advances’ including ‘inappropriate touching and groping’ whilst at university. An equally worrying finding of this survey is that 60% of respondents, male and female, were ‘unaware of any codes of conduct implemented by their university of students’ unions that prohibit or tackle sexual conversations, sexual comments, unwelcomed sexual advances, group intimidation, and verbal harassment.’ Clearly, even where policies designed to protect students do exist, students are not always aware of their existence and consequently do not feel protected or supported.

Here at Durham University, we pride ourselves on our on-site, largely on-demand College-based pastoral care and welfare provision. Our collegiate system offers our students the opportunity to become members of relatively small college community within the wider university community. That a student at a Durham college is likely to see their College Officers and JCR / MCR Welfare officers around college on a day to day basis (if the student is resident within their college) means that pastoral support has a familiar name and a face, and is more easily accessible and less intimidating than within a non-collegiate HE institution where staff-provided pastoral support is largely centralized.

However, staff with a student support and pastoral care remit need to be aware that there are both positive and negative implications and considerations of living and working within a relatively small and close college community when aiming to discourage or to deal with incidents of sexual assault or harassment.

Victims of sexual violence may well feel more comfortable reporting such crimes to a familiar staff member. As such, student support staff and student welfare officers in colleges should be given ongoing training to build their confidence in responding effectively to reports of any type of sexual assault or harassment and to develop the knowledge and skills required to respond appropriately. However, it may also be the case that a victim feels embarrassed or ashamed reporting such a crime to someone they are likely to continue to see around campus in scholarly and social situations.

Furthermore, in close college communities ‘everybody knows everybody’, and, inevitably, news travels fast. On one hand, this might mean that students refrain from unscrupulous, prohibited, or illegal behavior on campus (such as sexual violence) as the chances of remaining unidentified are rather slimmer than in a more anonymous non-collegiate institution. However, the same could of course be said for a victim of rape, sexual assault, or harassment. Victims may well fear that in a relatively small community their right to anonymity and privacy may be endangered, and that subsequently they may be stigmatized or ostracized by their peers.  Best practice dictates that students should always be given the option to receive pastoral support out of College, and out of the university. Staff with a student support and pastoral care remit should, therefore, ensure that they are familiar with the various external resources and support bodies in their area so that efficient and discreet onward referrals may be made. Additionally, details of these external bodies should be well publicized to students to allow victims to bypass altogether the ‘signposting’ service provided by College staff, if desired.

As noted in the Durham Students’ Union Assembly minutes (dated 19/06/2014) ‘Whilst the college system has many benefits in terms of supporting students, in the case of sexual violence, attempting to report an assault via the college can lead to a direct conflict of interest’ where ‘the [alleged] perpetrator and the [alleged] victim/survivor’ are in the same college’ (my additions). A college has a duty of care to all of its students and this duty of care is discharged even in those thankfully rare cases where a student is accused of a crime and faces police investigation or criminal charges. In such a case, the various parties would be supported by different members of staff within the college, with a view to minimizing any contact between them, and it may well be deemed best practice to ensure that both parties are supported by external bodies so as to avoid any conflict of interest that may jeopardize high quality pastoral care provision.

In 2013, the National Unions of Students (NUS) published a report titled ‘That’s what she said: Women students’ experiences of lad culture in higher education’ which identified an intimidating and injurious ‘lad culture’, a significant feature of which was ‘banter’ which was often perceived to be ‘sexist, misogynist and homophobic’ and which many respondents considered to normalize, glamorise, or condone rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment.

Again, a small and close college community affords staff opportunities to address a damaging ‘lad culture’ differently than in a large and largely anonymous non-collegiate institution. By virtue of working (and, for some resident staff, living) where our students live, College staff in collegiate universities have more day-to-day interaction with our students, and are arguably better placed than centralized student support staff in non-collegiate institutions to influence the climate of our college communities. College staff can model desirable behavior and address undesirable behavior not only in the lecture hall but also in the dining hall, the college bar, the common room, the library, gym. However, it is also the case that a vociferous and visible minority of students who behave in a harmful way may be or may appear to be disproportionately influential within a relatively small college community, unduly affecting the climate of that community.  College staff must be unafraid to confront and tackle unacceptable and damaging culture, and must be given the training and support to allow them to do so.

The individual character of colleges at collegiate universities such as Durham, Oxford, and Cambridge is fiercely projected and protected by students and staff alike. Moves by the centre to impose upon colleges any ‘one size fits all’ initiatives which undermine the autonomy of the student common rooms are usually poorly received. The decision to run mandatory sexual workshops at Oxford and Cambridge was clearly not a centrally-imposed decision as a significant minority of colleges at both intuitions chose not to run the workshops. I wonder whether the fact that some colleges insist that freshers attend such a workshops and others do not risks sending an inadvertent but potentially damaging message to students at colleges where the talks are not offered.

Knowing that other colleges do offer these talks, a student at a college where such a talk is not offered may potentially feel that his or her college does not prioritize student sexual safety and that any allegation or complaint made may not be treated confidentially or seriously.  It would, therefore, seem to be best practice to ensure that if such workshops are to be incorporated into Freshers’ Week programmes at collegiate universities, there should be parity of provision across all colleges, or at least comparable alternatives that clearly promote the same end. Clearly, a key challenge for collegiate universities in tackling these issues is the difficulty of trying to get all colleges to agree on and adopt a single mode of provision.

The same goes for any policies or statements on the issues of sexual consent and sexual violence that are issued by colleges. Members of Hatfield College (students, staff, and Senior Common Room members) are expected to adhere not only to the University’s Codes of Practice, but also to the College’s ‘Respect at Work and Study’ policy that has been drafted in conjunction with students and added to the College’s regulations in 2013-14. Whilst the policy does not refer solely to sexual consent, it expressly prohibits:

‘Sexual contact, of any nature and under any circumstances, for which explicit consent has not been given. This includes, for example, touching intimate parts of another person’s body while dancing;

Interaction with others, or mention of others, in terms that present them as a “sex object” or imply they are under an obligation to behave in a sexual way;

Negative behaviour towards others when they would naturally refuse to accept such descriptions of themselves;’

At present not all colleges at Durham University have an equivalent policy as part of their College Regulations; time will tell whether a similar policy is adopted by other colleges.

It’s clear, then, that staff with a student support and pastoral care remit at Durham University colleges are in a very privileged position; our close college communities mean that we are in a position to model and encourage good conduct; to raise awareness of sexual violence in our student bodies; and to provide on-site, on-demand pastoral care where needed. However, we must also be mindful of the barriers (real or perceived) that may be present in a small community to an individual wishing to report an incident of sexual violence or to receive support thereafter.


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