Surveying students on sexual violence requires institutional diplomacy as well as research sensitivity

Bridget Steele and David Humphreys explain that surveying students on sexual violence requires grappling not only with research ethics, but also the internal politics of institutions

David Humphreys is an Associate Professor of Evidence-Based Intervention and Policy Evaluation

Bridget Steele is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University.

For some time now, students at higher education institutions have been demanding more action from their universities in addressing sexual violence.

Following guidance from UK Universities Changing the Culture Report, we founded the Oxford Understanding Relationships, Sex, Power, Abuse, and Consent Experiences (OURSPACE) study to both assess the prevalence and nature of sexual violence among UK university students and understand the feasibility challenges of monitoring trends in sexual violence in a UK higher educational setting.

Collecting data on sexual violence is the first step to effectively resourcing prevention and response policy and programming. While surveys that measure sexual violence are routine (and legally mandated) at US institutions, they are much less common in the UK (as shown in our recent meta-analyses). Therefore, the purpose of our study was two-fold:

1. Understand student experiences of sexual violence at the University of Oxford

2. Understand barriers to doing this research in the UK


In June 2020, we invited every registered student at the University of Oxford to participate in the OURSPACE survey. Delivering a survey to a university population can be significant and resource-intensive. Our key first steps were gaining institutional approval by establishing strong connections and relationships with stakeholders, including senior university leadership and student groups, putting together a study team, and securing internal institutional funding and ethical approval.

Then, we started developing the survey tool. Among many things, we considered the potential intrusiveness of asking students about traumatic events, the time required to complete the survey, and the extent to which we would follow up with students who did not initially respond. A careful balance was needed.

We asked students questions about the frequency, location, and nature of the incidents that occurred to build a detailed understanding of events. But, while it is customary to follow up with invited participants on multiple occasions, we were concerned that repeated requests for sensitive information could be harmful. So, we opted to follow up with non-respondents on only two occasions.

The survey development process involved several rounds of piloting with students and research colleagues. Adapting questions from a previous US campus climate survey, we asked participants about past year experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault, bystander behaviour, and rape myth acceptance, using validated measures where possible. Further details of our methodology can be found in our published protocol. The final survey took approximately 15 minutes to complete, and following its dissemination, we had over 1600 students respond to the survey, with over 1300 answering questions on experiences of sexual violence.

What we found

One in five survey respondents reported experiencing an incident of sexual assault, and half of all respondents reported experiencing an incident of sexual harassment (acts of a sexual nature that did not involve physical touching) in the past year. One in four women reported sexual assault – more than double the proportion of men. For sexual harassment, two-thirds of women and one-third of men reported experiencing at least one incident. We also found that men, when compared to women, were significantly less likely to engage in bystander behaviour to prevent sexual violence and more likely to support attitudes that place the blame of sexual violence on victims or survivors.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how this compares to other university contexts in the UK or the broader picture of sexual violence among the population, as few studies have been made public. One, albeit imperfect, barometer we can use is the UK’s Office for National Statistics 2021 England and Wales Crime Survey, which reported that full-time students over the age of 16 experienced the highest rates of sexual violence when compared to people in any other occupation (12 per cent of women and 4 per cent of men). Our results show that sexual violence among this population in the UK might be more prevalent than in the Crime Survey. While limitations such as sample size and response bias were present in our research, estimates presented in our survey are consistent with rates reported in the US context and in the few campus climate surveys already conducted in the UK.

Navigating institutional politics

Researching sexual violence in higher education institutions can be an intrepid journey into institutional politics. Since beginning this research, we have encountered many others who have attempted similar studies at their own institution, only to come under significant pressure to withhold findings or discontinue their work due to fears of reputational damage.

Even within our own institution – where we had high-level support for this research – we encountered a range of opinions and perspectives that were not always positive. For many, our results echoed what many colleagues already knew through their personal experiences as students, academics, or professionals working closely with the student population. For this group, the findings helped provide a more robust picture of the problem that could be used to prompt discussions and further action. But for others, there was shock and sometimes disbelief that our findings could be reflective of the student experience.

Comparative data

The present lack of data available across UK institutions means that efforts to understand this problem may be viewed negatively despite the presence of (often unmeasured) sexual violence in other sectors. However, as findings of an international review of over 100 campus climate surveys show (forthcoming in the academic journal Trauma, Violence, and Abuse), prevalence estimates among the OURSPACE participants are broadly comparable with findings for higher educational institutions worldwide.

Considerable progress has been made across the sector as a result of the demanding work of students, advocacy groups and departments that have committed to responding transparently to the growing concerns about the impact of sexual violence on students.

There is now a great opportunity for institutions to take proactive ownership and action over an issue that is increasingly consuming the time of university administrators. It is fundamentally important that universities seek to understand the nature of the student experience (both the good and the bad) to maximise safety and equity in higher educational environments.

We hope that as more academics and institutions begin to collect and analyse data on sexual violence, we will see a shift in how these efforts are viewed as a foundation of efforts to improve student safety rather than just an institutional headache.

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