*Content Warning: Please note this article contains references to sexual violence and may be upsetting to some readers.*
Words By Ellie Doughty
The university’s public policy on sexual violence, found at https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=statement-on-violence-13-october-2017.pdf&site=302 states that ‘The University of Sussex is committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for students, staff and visitors. Violence, and violent behaviour of any kind, are not tolerated in our university community and the University does not condone violence in any shape or form. The University works proactively to prevent violent action, conduct or language through our policies, practices and behaviours. We recognise that violence is best prevented and accordingly, weight is given to prevention by ensuring that staff and students are aware of the University’s policies in this area and of the consequences that might ensue should violent incidents occur. The University provides support and guidance to staff, students and visitors if an incident of violence is reported. When violence does occur within the University community, we will ensure that we use our policies and procedures in a timely, confidential and effective manner, respecting the views of the victims. Where appropriate we will not shy away from referral to the police.’
Under this umbrella they include ‘ Any act of violence or harassment of a sexual nature, any kind of unwanted, non-consensual sexual touching or harassment within or outside a relationship, which may include rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, groping or being coerced into or threatened with sexual acts’.
In terms of the disciplinary process, the university has an online tool for making a ‘zero tolerance report’, and further sanctions can include immediate suspension or- if considered ‘sufficiently serious’, a referral to those who implement the University’s official disciplinary procedure. However, if a complainant makes one of these complaints anonymously – as many survivors of sexual violence choose to do in order to protect their privacy – no ‘formal complaint/disciplinary proceedings’ are able to be carried forward ‘at this stage’. I find it difficult, as I’m sure others do, to view both their statement of ‘respecting the views of victims’ and their refusal to carry forward anonymous complaints.
A study from 2016 provided statistics that circulated quite widely on social media within the Sussex student bubble, a survey whose results can be read in more detail here: https://babe.net/2016/11/19/91-per-cent-female-students-groped-nightclub-806. It found that (in polling 14,000 UK students) Sussex was the worst for groping on a night out. A whopping 96% of women at Sussex who filled out the survey reported this occurrence, and I myself have experienced it more times than I care to count. While some may consider groping to be ‘low’ down on the scale of sexual violence (and therefore more easily excusable as a ‘drunken misjudgement’) it results from, and fosters, an incredibly damaging environment for young people to occupy.
In terms of sexual violence as a broader topic, it is a huge problem at UK universities (and worse sometimes elsewhere in the world…) with more than half of the student population reporting ‘unwanted advances and assault, ranging from explicit messages to rape’. In January of 2019, a study found that 56% of respondents had experienced some kind of sexual violence, with only 8% reporting these to the police or their university (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/feb/26/more-than-half-of-uk-students-say-they-have-faced-unwanted-sexual-behaviour) . More than half said the perpetrator was another student. And 30% of the incidents took place on campus.
More recently, in 2020, a study (found here: Unsafe Spaces | Emerald Insight) referenced in a Guardian article (found here: Sexual abuse at English and Welsh universities ‘a public scandal’ – study | Universities | The Guardian) concluded that ‘the number of student victims of sexual harassment or abuse far exceeds formal complaints made to universities, many of whose procedures for dealing with such complaints are still inadequate’. Upon pressing university administrators they stated the following ‘They believe around 15% of female students and 3% of male students are abused while at university. This equates to about 50,000 students being abused every year.’
However, certain research (like those referenced above) suggest this number to be far higher, especially likely if we take into consideration the number of unreported incidents. The Guardian article reads; ‘Dr Anna Bull, of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct at UK universities, said research from the US and Australia found that 40-50% of all students are subject to sexual harassment during their studies, and prevalence was likely to be the same in England.’ and that “Sexual violence is routinely minimised and underestimated, including in higher education. Unlike in the US and Australia, where large-scale studies have been carried out to determine its prevalence, in the UK the sector has not supported such robust research.”
While it is not possible nor is it generally good practice to make sweeping assumptions about specific universities in interpreting these statistics, there are several aspects to this issue which are plain and sorely in need of reparation. The first is that this issue requires desperate attention and consideration, (especially in reflection of Dr Bull’s comments) and the second is that education plays an important role here perhaps not yet fully addressed. In the 2019 study mentioned above, only half of the respondents iterated the fact that drunk consent is not in fact authentic, nor legal consent. Only 15% said they thought unwanted sexual behaviour counted as sexual harassment.
In terms of life pre-university; most forms of secondary education are guided by a government provided curriculum, and a survey in 2016
(https://www.tht.org.uk/our-work/our-campaigns/relationships-and-sex-education-rse) found that almost three quarters of pupils had never received any education on consent. I myself recieved fewer lessons on sexual education than I can count on one hand, and most involved a lecture from the school nurse on how life-ruining sex would be, with pictures of STI symptons… and placing a condom on a dildo – once. There was never a mention of the word consent, and luckily I recieved education on that subject elsewhere. But what happens when other people aren’t as lucky?
In only March of last year did the House of Commons finally vote in support of replacing the existing guidance on this part of the curriculum, in place since 2000, to make RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) mandatory in all schools from September 2020. In other words, education for young people on sexual health and consent is only becoming compulsory this autumn! Additionally, it won’t have been updated before this for twenty years. In the last twenty years we have seen perhaps more change in the world of romantic relationships and sex than in the previous two decades. With the vast technological advancements, the creation of online dating and the development or consumption of pornography; different platforms for online interaction have expanded so much further than a twenty year old guidance for sexual education could even begin to cater to.
As a university, Sussex can decide how it uses its resources and funding on this topic. It is not solely subject to the state administered curriculum in the way that our primary and secondary schools so often are. Few universities in the UK have made consent courses compulsory for incoming or even returning students, but some have. Sussex, sadly, is not one of them. A brief exploration of their educational RSE resources follow.
At this link http://www.sussex.ac.uk/wellbeing/studentlife/consentonlinecourse you will find the details of a free and online course covering issues around consent. It requires finding the link – as at least in my three years at Sussex I was never presented with it – enrolling in an online Canvas course, and completing it. According to their website, all undergraduate students are invited to a two hour workshop on healthy relationships as well upon joining. Note that out of these two options, neither is heavily encouraged let alone made mandatory. They are advertised less I think, than the many sports societies or freshers events. This link http://www.sussex.ac.uk/wellbeing/studentlife/sexualconsent will take you to the University’s page on sexual consent, detailing links to some videos and articles on the topic (a sorely unadvertised part of their online presence…)
Considering the evidently huge gap in sexual education in the UK, and the duty of care those who run the university have for us, you might think they would try to make these resources more widely known and used. Alas, we are -according to certain data- the top university in the UK for groping so I find myself somehow unsurprised. The University comment on this is as follows: “We currently offer an online relationships/consent course to all students pre-registration and have very good participation. It is also available throughout the year on Canvas. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we have been unable to continue our in-person healthy relationship workshops, but hope to re-launch them again shortly when conditions change. These are conducted by experienced trainers in this area who are postgraduate students in areas such as Gender Studies.” Note that these courses are, as I have highlighted, non-mandatory. What real reason could the University have in justifying this course of action when other UK universities are making this step forward in addressing sexual violence?
In terms of the University’s resources post-assault their website lists the following (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/wellbeing/safety/sexualassault/emergencyhelp). Recommendations to call the police or an ambulance if in need of emergency help, or if not, campus security are suggested. The website then reads that ‘if you are not at further risk’ to not ‘drink, eat, wash, smoke, brush your teeth, urinate or change your clothes until you decide what you want to do next. Keep any used condom or bedding in a clean plastic bag.’. So to clarify, the page a supposed survivor of sexual assault may come accross following sexual assault will tell them not to have a glass of water, not to pee (which is actually reccomended after sexual activity, especially for women), not to wash (which for legal reasons is explicable, but also often a natural response to such an experience) and to then pick up the remnants of their assault and locate a clean plastic bag to place them in. While sometimes recommended in regards to criminal, legal, or even medical purposes; these directives sound like something a trained trauma respondent should be available to help a recently assaulted student do. If not someone with that level of experience, then arguably not a residential advisor or member of campus security.
In specific terms of immediate help, you are directed here
http://www.sussex.ac.uk/wellbeing/safety/sexualassault/helpandsupport to contact your residential advisor, the security team or residential support team in terms of people available on campus. You might note that residential advisors are also students. Perhaps ahead of you by a year or more in university terms, but certainly not trained professionals, equipped to deal with such a sensitive situation. Many other resources are signposted including The Samaritans, The Saturn Centre or the Police. Not having trained and sufficiently equipped people (or even one person) in place to respond at times like this is concerning at the least and arguably negligent at worst. Whilst I am not ignorant of budget considerations, amongst so many other variables involved in institutional structures, it is a choice that remains difficult to defend. Their comment on this is as follows: “Students can get professional support on campus any time day or night for a sexual assault regardless of whether you wish the police to be involved or not, or need to time to decide. Just phone Security on 01273 873333 (3333 from an internal phone) and ask to speak to a Residential Life Manager about this. Alternatively, you can ask a Residential Life Connector to get in touch with one for you. During the day, you can speak to a Student Life Advisor – who are all trained to respond to disclosures of sexual violence.” Nonetheless, the Campus Security are not described here as trained in any way to deal with trauma. But, hey, if you call the next day the Student Life advisors are! Sit tight!
In terms of long term issues within the university, the Student Union has a selection of officers, each designated different areas within which to communicate and represent student needs. While the SU is separate from the University, their full time officers include people working in sports, societies, student living, sustainability and more. While these are important, the officers who are responsible for areas concerning Womens welfare, LGBTQ+ students, BAME students and Trans & Non-binary students are all part time and listed without a manifesto (https://sussexstudent.com/about-us/officers), the positions that one might assume could have or have had a capacity for responding in the event of sexual violence. The history of women’s welfare officers at UK universities is a troubling and sad negation of resources in and of itself.
The University also offers six free counselling sessions to those referred by the Student Life Centre, but possibly due to the ever present budget restrictions there is a limited amount of space and huge waiting list. The same is true of the Brighton and Hove sexual trauma services such as Rape Crisis or Survivor’s Network. Considering this, you’d think it might be a top priority issue to introduce stronger methods of education on campus surrounding consent. Rather a student founded group ‘Under the Sheets’ is attempting to implement consent workshops for societies and students, as well as disseminating important information. Other students are embarking on various similar projects or surveys also. Sad, really, that the students feel the need to protect themselves in ways the adults owing them a duty of care should be.
The Student Union was contacted for comment but are yet to respond. The remainder of the University’s comments are as follows: A University of Sussex spokesperson said: “It is extremely important to us that students speak out about sexual misconduct and we strongly encourage them to do so. We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for students, staff and visitors. Sexual misconduct will not be tolerated and we will take action to ensure the safety of everyone in our community. We will always take seriously any report made by a student and will support them through the process. Our staff work with charities such as Survivors’ Network, RISE and Veritas Justice on how to respond to such disclosures and keep students safe. We pay these organisations to provide sexual violence training for staff and they also provide sessions of trauma training. All students are provided with the necessary support and information to enable them to make informed choices about where and how to report if they wish to do so, and they are also signposted to welfare support services both internal and external to the University. The University has a Policy on Definitions of Violence, which provides definitions of different types of violence. In conjunction with this, the University has a Statement on Violence which brings together in one place all of the University’s policies and guidance in relation to the prevention and management of violence. Our policies make clear that we will not tolerate violence or inappropriate behaviour in any part of our University community, and to ensure that students and staff feel fully supported when such situations arise. We are also improving our report and support systems by introducing a new real-time reporting platform to the Student Hub, to identify and prevent harassment and bullying. This includes the ability for students to report racial harassment, sexual violence or domestic violence both anonymously and using their name enabling us to take action under our discipline regulation with the reporting student’s consent to do so. The University provides a pre-registration course, Consent Matters, which delivers up-to-date education on key concepts through a wide range of interactive multimedia activities. The realistic scenarios and peer perspectives that feature throughout the course represent the experiences of diverse student communities.
“The University has also very recently introduced a ‘Report and Support’ tool that will allow students to report an incident of sexual misconduct, domestic violence and hate crime and receive the support that they need. The tool will also allow us to promote and advise students of the pro-active support, sessions and education around this area that we will continue to grow in partnership with students.”