The National Union of Students (NUS) has released a UK-wide survey highlighting high levels of reported experiences of sexism and harassment on university campuses.
The study, entitled the ‘Lad Culture & Sexism Survey’, canvassed 2156 students via an online survey in a bid to “understand students’ experiences of lad culture and sexism at university” as well as to gauge awareness of reporting procedures at universities.
Its findings indicated a prevalence of uncomfortable sexual experiences, both verbal and physical, among students in the UK.
A quarter of students overall and 37 per cent of women reported personal experiences of “unwanted sexual advances”. That same percentage reported sexual comments directed toward their own bodies as well as “inappropriate touching and groping”.
Two out of three students had seen their peers endure sexual comments as well. 30 per cent referenced specific verbal harassment of their friends. Rape and sexual assault jokes were shown to be common as well, with 60 per cent of respondents reporting hearing them at university.
The survey results prompted a scathing response from NUS President Toni Pearce, who rebuked universities for a perceived lack of commitment to the issue.
“We keep hearing from universities that there is no fear, no intimidation, no problem – well this new research says otherwise,” she said in a statement.
“Today I say to universities everywhere the passing the buck approach of ‘not on my campus’ is now completely unacceptable. They must acknowledge the problems and join us in confronting them.”
Their implications aside, the findings were perhaps most notable for how predictable they were to students.
Eve Livingston, Vice President Societies and Activities at Edinburgh University Students’ Association told The Student “I would be surprised if they surprised anyone really,” echoing comments made in interviews with other Edinburgh students.
“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing this research and looking into what comes out of it,” she continued.
Livingston is part of the Lad Culture Strategy Team, the national student task force that commissioned the study. The group is now working on a pilot scheme to unite student unions and develop dynamic strategies to apply at a university level.
Within Edinburgh, she has touted initiatives already implemented by EUSA to tackle the issues highlighted in the survey. For example, fresher’s week featured an ad campaign in student venues with the slogan “Have you seen this monster?”, aimed at addressing behaviour often overlooked or dismissed, such as unsolicited grinding in nightclubs and stalking in the street. These are things that people might be uncomfortable to call harassment for fear of being told they’re making a big fuss out of nothing,” she explained.
More recently, EUSA has partnered with the advocacy campaign Hollaback, which seeks to combat street harassment by working with local bars and clubs as well as awareness efforts city-wide.
But despite such initiatives, the NUS survey uncovered another uncomfortable reality: while two out of every three of respondents said they would theoretically report sexual advances to the university, three out of every five were unaware of what the reporting procedures even were.
This awareness gap was manifest in interviews with students at Edinburgh.
“I definitely don’t know the procedure…I’ve never heard of any!” fourth year Gabriella Delgado-Rhodes told The Student.
She added: “I don’t know if the police, EUSA or the university would be more supportive either.”
“I know I could get the info eventually but I don’t know it off the top of my head,” fourth year Naomi Jefferson agreed.
Livingston is quick to point out that the procedures do exist. EUSA has recently signed onto a Good Night Out pledge that provides for and encourages comprehensive reporting procedures.
“We’ll always take a victim-led approach when we’re dealing with it, and as part of that we’re reviewing the training of bar staff and door staff for how to react to those situations.”
And she stressed that beyond EUSA staff “who have all been trained in sexual harassment”, all university employees were bound by the Dignity and Respect Policy to address allegations of sexual harassment on campus.
“The policy basically says you can report it to anyone in the university,” she said.
Yet even when the processes are known, students display reticence to report.
A prevailing theme among students interviewed was one of resignation.
“I don’t think it’s so much not knowing how to report, but the fact that a lot of smaller harassment incidents would not be taken seriously by the police, or not possible to follow up,” fourth year Ghazaleh Mohammadi-Zaniani said.
“Sure I’ve had people make comments and the general ass slap does happen sometimes, but it is such a quick incident that you don’t really report it”, she continued.
“It’s the normal thing to do to completely ignore it”, fourth year Juliet Sanderson said.
She continued: “For some reason, you’d feel sleazy if you responded. It’s easy to dismiss sexual harassment as not serious enough to report. It’s almost like you’d feel bad for doing it.”
Through awareness campaigns about campus, Livingston hopes to turn the tide on what is for many thought of as a necessary acquiescence.
“As long as that stuff is happening, we need to be telling people that it’s not OK to do it, how to report it and deal with it if you’re uncomfortable about it”, she said.