Responding to sexual misconduct

Sexual misconduct now features prominently in public conversation, with examples like the #MeToo movement and the acknowledgement of sexual harassment in Westminster illustrating the start of a cultural step-change regarding attitudes towards this behaviour.

Sexual misconduct has also been a hot topic in universities, particularly since the publication of the UUK task force report on violence against women, harassment and hate crime in October 2016. Most universities already have clear guidance on responding to disclosures of sexual misconduct, but little research has been conducted into the expectations and experiences of students engaging with these processes. In the autumn of 2017, AMOSSHE, the UK student services organisation, funded an investigation into students’ expectations of their universities when disclosing an experience of sexual misconduct. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, the study uncovered findings in relation to this issue that we believe are crucial to any university seeking to improve the experience of its students at their institution.

Visibility

The study discovered that sexual misconduct is highly prevalent within universities, and that students strongly want their institutions to ‘do better’ with regards to handling misconduct allegations. Worryingly, a significant proportion of participants stated a reluctance to report sexual misconduct to a member of university staff. The research found multiple reasons for this – fear of not being believed, a worry that it is not the university’s ‘problem’, and ignorance of how to actually report sexual misconduct were all barriers to disclosure. The general feeling amongst students was that the information ‘must be somewhere’, but they just do not know where. This information is disappointingly not sufficiently visible or accessible to them.

‘I Want to Feel like They Actually Care’

Informed in part by experiences of feeling ‘judged’ or ‘blamed’ by staff, the data revealed overwhelmingly that students want their emotional well-being to be prioritised following disclosures of sexual misconduct. In addition to the ‘professional’ role they believed staff should deliver (involving relaying options for taking the complaint forward in the university), students really wanted to feel like they would be provided with care by staff in a pastoral sense. Importantly, feeling like a staff member was simply following procedure without any expression of empathy or sympathy was thought to worsen a student’s already significant state of distress.  

Students also had much to say about the services already available at their universities to provide ongoing support to survivors of sexual misconduct. While some highlighted bonds between members of support staff and students that aided reintegration into university life following an experience of misconduct, many described their institution’s support initiatives as inadequate and not fit for purpose. Significantly, any limit on the number of counselling sessions they could receive was a major point of contention for students because of the perceived subjective nature of the time it takes a person to recover from a sexual assault.

The perceived absence of university counsellors specifically trained in sexual misconduct was seen as a further area for improvement. Students also felt strongly that experiencing sexual misconduct should be considered grounds for granting coursework extensions and submitting mitigating circumstances.

Restorative and retributive justice

Students believed that offenders must endure punishment for committing all acts of sexual misconduct, no matter the perceived severity. Mindful always that the sanction should constitute a deterrent for future misdemeanours, students offered a range of retributive and restorative sanctions for perpetrators throughout the research. Of the former, punishments were suggested that included in some way an element of ‘exclusion’. Depending on the nature of the offence, students and staff should be suspended (either for a period of time or indefinitely) from the university, banned from being in close spatial proximity with the survivor, or be disallowed from attending university recreational events. And when it comes to restorative justice, students suggested that attendance at ‘consent’ workshops and written/verbal apologies to the victim be made compulsory for the offending party.

Recommendations

The report has uncovered some exigent findings for universities seeking to improve the lives of their students at university. Key recommendations include:

  • Universities should create clear and accessible reporting routes for students to disclose and/or report sexual misconduct that are hyper-visible for students around campus and on the university’s digital networks;
  • Universities should promptly respond to disclosures, offering initial or further face to face support and clearly setting out students’ options for reporting and/or seeking support;
  • Universities should employ support staff specifically trained in dealing with issues of sexual misconduct;
  • The staff currently working within universities dealing with disclosures should be trained in the area of sexual misconduct and in how to provide empathetic responses to students;
  • Universities should consider introducing educative and reflective sanctions for all sexual misconduct offences, alongside more punitive sanctions for cases deemed to be “more serious” in nature.

What does this mean in practice?

One key finding of the report was that there was no one clear route of disclosure, with students approximately equally likely to approach central support services, counselling, ‘other students’ and, importantly, academic advisers/personal tutors. This highlights not only the need for highly visible reporting routes publicised to students, but the need to ensure all student-facing staff (particularly academics undertaking personal tutoring roles) understand the reporting routes at their university and can provide a supportive first response to students disclosing an experience of sexual misconduct.

The report also shows that students expect their universities to provide significant ongoing support – including specialist counselling – to students who have experienced sexual misconduct. Given unprecedented pressure on university student support and counselling services due to spiralling levels of mental ill-health and cutbacks to NHS services, it is important that university leaders offer more than warm words to ensure their students are properly supported. The cultural conversation around #MeToo, and the increasing number of university and students’ union initiatives such as bystander intervention workshops and sexual harassment campaigns, means that disclosure rates will continue to rise. Universities need to be ready – and resourced – to provide these students with the support they deserve.

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