Tackling sexual violence requires more than victim support

We should be concerned that many survivors of sexual violence, including staff and students at universities, do not feel able to tell anyone about their experience.

Some students only disclose what happened to them when it has already had a devastating impact on their studies or when they are leaving a university. They hold back for a range of reasons, such as not trusting that they will be believed or fearing that they will be blamed.

Beyond guidelines and training

In recent years, the higher education sector has stepped up its work to try to address this, and also to prevent abuse. For example, see Universities UK’s report on changing cultures. Many universities have publicised their reporting procedures and improved support, and change is necessary and welcome. However, we won’t get cultural change unless we also have more effective ways to equip university staff to deal with these issues, involving methods which go beyond fact-based or instructive training courses covering what to do when a disclosure is made.

There is a need for a different sort of guidance for staff, something deeper – programmes which allow people to discuss and think about their own and other people’s attitudes and knowledge, rather than a tick-box approach which only aims to give directions on how to respond if someone tells you that they have been harmed.

A feminist approach

Our recent research suggests that feminist education for university staff, rather than just training, has the potential to change institutional cultures and attitudes in ways that could enhance the university environment for everyone. We have piloted a new kind of education programme covering sexual violence and abuse, underpinned by feminist principles and pedagogy rather than the more traditional model of training of the sort run by human resources departments. We also provide our educational programme materials for staff on the USVreact website to be downloaded for free and adapted to different institutional settings.

In our pilot project, participants (university staff) were given specific practical advice on how to support those who had made a disclosure, but the course was also designed to help people develop an in-depth understanding about the context in which sexual violence and abuse takes place through open discussion about each other’s experiences and observations in society. Some found this challenging. It wasn’t always easy for people to take part in such open discussion and to get used to not having continuous instruction.

As part of this course, exploring new ideas, debate, and challenging assumptions was encouraged. In our research, we found that moving away from information giving to information sharing was not easy for some to adjust to, and it made some participants feel like they had to do all the work themselves. Others said they had benefited and learned from hearing other people’s points of view. We all have relevant and valuable knowledge, and helping people to share this was a key part of the programme’s design. Learning was a collaborative process, and challenging questions were welcomed.

This education programme was piloted with 85 staff at one of the universities involved in the Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence (USVreact) project, co-funded by the European Commission. Initial sessions were facilitated by three psychotherapists with extensive experience of working in sexual violence support services and later sessions were led by university staff working in student support, with assistance from the original facilitators. University partners in Greece, Italy, Catalonia and the Basque Country devised programmes for their staff, and for each partner university who devised interventions and had a researcher, several other universities were invited to pilot adaptions at their own institution. This allowed Latvian and Serbian colleagues to adapt education materials to their cultural and institutional contexts and meant that, during the two years of funding, interventions were made at 24 universities in Europe. The idea was that these are sustainable interventions which can start to create valuable change at these institutions.

Our analysis based on interviews and focus groups with participants suggests the sessions helped to build the confidence of staff. In some instances, the education they received as part of the pilot study offered reassurance and validation that they could do the right thing in a disclosure situation – and that honestly representing the limitations of what they could do is a decent way of responding, avoiding the urge to make rash comments about the future or justice which cannot be guaranteed.

The course asked people to think about sexual violence from a feminist point of view, and we believe this can help people contribute to changing social and institutional cultures from within. Importantly this means not just sexual harassment and violence against women: it means recognising that men can be victimised too, and that they typically struggle to disclose, sometimes for many years; and that trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students are particularly at risk of violence, including sexual violence. More details about our findings are reported in our new journal article in Gender and Education.

Culture change

Universities have a responsibility to provide people with the tools and culture that encourage sensitive and effective responses when survivors come forward to speak about harms they have experienced. The more university communities normalise these conversations, the easier and more prevalent disclosure will become. Changing the culture means reflecting on the power relations and norms that structure the whole university community, with all the discomfort this will engender about social inequalities in general and hierarchical organisations in particular. Running education about sexual abuse and violence, rather than just training, can change attitudes and play a part in this change.

If you make use of the USVreact materials, please get in touch with Pam Alldred (pam.alldred@brunel.ac.uk) or Gigi Guizzo (gigi@asceps.org) to let them know what you do with them and how you get on – new case studies can still be added to the USVreact website.

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