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The way universities listen to survivors of sexual violence can mean their voices are not heard

"Listen to survivors" is often a rallying cry of anti-sexual misconduct work, but Sunday Blake argues that universities can do so in a way which limits their agency and privileges the voices of others
This article is more than 1 year old

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The emergence of allegations of sexual misconduct, stalking, and rape from current and former – and mainly junior – staff at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are striking.

This is both in the specifics of the cases and in the ways that they illustrate how less powerful staff can be effectively silenced when organisations fail to address toxic cultures that facilitate sexual misconduct.

In one sense, universities are in a different place from the CBI, with nearly a decade of serious sector-wide work on tackling sexual misconduct and violence. But what we saw at the CBI was partly the effect of a toxic power imbalance tolerated by a wider culture of strict hierarchy.

In university processes for addressing sexual misconduct, there is often a power imbalance between those agitating for the issue to be addressed and those responsible for creating and implementing policies designed to address it.

Within the policy process, who gets to speak and when, with what forms of knowledge, reinforces this power imbalance – even when institutions actively try to listen to student voice.

In general, there are two ways of doing student voice: student activism and student representation. In sexual misconduct, student activists often come onto the scene as survivors testifying (agitating), while student representatives tend to sit on policy review boards (policy-making).

For some reason, students in these two groups are perceived as distinct.

The one role rule

Listening to survivors has to be more than just leaving room for a witness testimony-style agenda item where a student can give a visceral retelling of horrific experiences and then be dismissed from the policy review process.

This overlooks that sexual violence is about power, not sex. Asking survivors to describe the sexually violent part but then disempowering them from the policy process – reserved for representatives – doubles down on the disempowerment.

Singling out individuals to speak as “survivors” and elevating them to a unique status within the policy process also overlooks that almost every woman is a survivor – including others occupying other roles within the policy work.

When victims are included in the policy process only as victims, others are forced to maintain the position of non-survivor even if they have experienced traumatic experiences in order to appear non-biased.

This is a wider issue in higher education that impacts more than just students. Fiona Drouet, who tragically lost her daughter, Emily after she faced gender-based violence at university – and now runs Emily Test charity, told me she had sometimes been written off by colleagues within HE as a “hysterical, bereaved parent” rather than a serious and successful campaigner. And student officers who have spoken of their own experience of sexual misconduct have reported then being held off misconduct panels and policy review boards over concerns of “bias”.

Privileged experiences

When survivors are ringfenced as only able to testify from experience, assumptions are also made about the critical distance of other participants.

If we agree that sexual violence is not uncommon, then even if a member of staff or student has not personally been impacted as a victim of sexual violence, they will still have experienced sexual violence. This could be as a passing observer or bystander – be it in public or school playground – as a friend or confidant, or possibly even a perpetrator.

A defining moment of my students’ union career was meeting a former SU President who had been in office in the late 1990s. I discussed having recently sold the SU bar to the university in return for a significant increase to our annual block grant. He said it was no loss as one could no longer “pinch girl’s bums” in there, anyway.

This man had experienced sexual violence. He had just experienced it in a way which rendered it harmless to him. He then went into a job where he had significant input into policy.

How many “non-biased” non-victims are privileged on boards, committees, and working groups after the survivor testimonies are heard, and the survivor participants are dismissed?

Survivors are seen as emotional, and their thoughts are triangulated with, if not ignored in favour of, the opinion of experts.

Ironically, “non-survivor” benign experience is privileged over both survivor and academic expertise all the time. Take the staff-student relationship policy debates playing out across the sector right now:

“Yes, it’s regrettable that a few people are abused, and yes, there are some angry victims on Twitter, and yes, I know academics who study this say otherwise, but I, personally, have a good experience of this, and therefore, my experience is normal, common sense, rational.”

Policy processes need to acknowledge not just that anyone could be a survivor of sexual violence, but that everyone has some experience of sexual violence – survivor or not.

Without this explicit acknowledgement, non-victim-centred experiences of sexual violence play out in policy and practice en masse – even when those designing it believe they are non-biased or “listening to survivors.”

You’ve been framed

However, when survivors move from testifying (agitating) to policy-making, they are still pigeonholed in a way that can prevent meaningful progress on the issue.

In our recently launched book Stopping gender-based violence in higher education, my co-author Jim Dickinson and I explore the ways sexual violence is framed, and how these framings change the ways students can engage in prevention and response, borrowing Rittel and Webber’s 1970s (and Grint’s 2010) terms.

“Critical” problems are those when there is danger. In these instances student leaders campaign to prevent future occurrences – think one-off splurges on anti-spiking bottle tops or temporary better lighting in the streets that surround student housing.

“Tame” problems are complicated but contained and easily solved as long as someone prioritises the issue and allocates the resources – think anti-spiking working groups handing out drinks covers, and lengthy reviews of Licensing Acts. Student leaders – however they first framed sexual violence themselves – tend to be positioned in their onboarding process to work on tame issues. That means being asked to attend sexual violence working groups and taskforces, reading and feeding back on papers etc.

“Wicked” problems are more complex – requiring deeper thinking, contested negotiation over the nature, scope and definition of a problem, and the identification of multiple drivers of a problem – think debates over whether the issue of “needle spiking” is, in reality, a moral panic; wider debates about harms arising from the securitisation of venues; claims that spiking is more likely to happen in (quasi)domestic settings; and calls for better prevalence research on sexual misconduct experienced by students to ensure effective targeting of resources.

Academics and some student leaders tend to address sexual violence as wicked and wider societal issue that replicates within universities on a micro-level, which requires deeper thought, complex interrogation and multi-agency action.

High-intensity resistance framing

The issue is that whatever category a student is put into, the same category can become a mode of resistance to meaningful change.

The problem is not necessarily the framing of debates or that different framings can be at odds with one another – like the slow policy review process versus the allegations of immediate danger; the tangible documents and strategy implementations vs discussions of a nebulous issue; or the academic pondering vs critical emergency.

The problem is that however a student engages, at no point can they “win” – because however they engage, they are met with corresponding resistance – and a suggestion that they should be approaching the issue in a different manner. And this can be completely unconsciously from the institution and simply a byproduct of how problems are historically approached.

For example, when student leaders lead protests, they are told to “sit at the table, don’t bang at the door” (don’t think critical, think tame!). They will have an “emergency” meeting with the well-meaning senior leader with a sympathetic face who can appease the staff and student body having listened to survivors – just as their cardboard placards at the protests demanded! Leaders may express their (genuine) shock at sexual violence – or whatever high-profile event has catalysed protests – and agree that urgent action should be taken – even if that action is short-lived or has little impact.

The elected student officer is socialised to understand that processes and reviews take time and that they are only one elected leader in office for a short period of time, and they can’t expect to fix such a widespread social ill alone (don’t think tame, think wicked!). But when their successor arrives lacking the same enthusiasm as them, their agenda item is deleted from the working group.

Any student or student leader brave enough to attempt engaging in the wicked problem (or who hangs around persistently enough) just needs to understand that sexual violence is a wider issue – much, much wider than the campus or institution – and oh, so there’s really only so much we can do to solve it. They will be asked – perhaps, unfairly – what do they practically expect the university to do right now about such a widespread problem, if it’s such an emergency? (don’t think wicked, think critical!).

No student engagement can win here, so it is no surprise that students working in sexual misconduct report burnout.

I am certain that this framing is not necessarily universally malicious. But staff dealing with sexual violence need to think about how the framing of the issue can force student voice into categories which prevent authentic input into policy – particularly from survivors, as well as who they are speaking to about it and why, and where the proposed action will lead.

Where do we go?

None of this is to criticise how students themselves raise the issue of sexual violence, or to say that there is no space for survivor testimony. The critical and urgent nature of protests and public disclosures are often the only way those without access to institutional power can make their voices heard. Equally, the tame and detached processes are sometimes the only way student leaders can work through what has happened to them while maintaining the professionalism expected of them.

But institutions need to proactively address sexual violence in a way that goes further than simply responding to it within limited framing, within the way is presented to them, or by treating students as one-dimensional in their experiences of sexual violence.

3 responses to “The way universities listen to survivors of sexual violence can mean their voices are not heard

  1. I love this piece of writing – thank you. It is so accurate to what I’ve seen repeatedly.
    There’s a responsibility on universities + unions to support the students who are part of this work – not just equip them with the relevant knowledge about the dynamics of gender-based violence, but the support they need to work with other students esp. survivors. How many times do we put officers into a committee/working group on this without preparing them enough? (lots)

  2. Excellent article! You have perfectly summarised the present issues across the sector, even for institutions that are genuinely trying to do this work well. Hopefully this piece will help colleagues not directly involved with this work to understand why this is so important.

  3. A really important piece, whose thinking is just as relevant to the workplace, indeed to all institutions, not just HE. One small observation, if I may: while the majority of cases involve women as victims (which makes one ashamed to be a male, so horrific they are and how frequently they take place), men can also be on the receiving end of sexual violence. I know you know this, but it was brought home to me recently when I was told about a contemporary at primary school, whom I had not seen for almost 50 years. He was abused by the school chaplain and tragically, he went on to become an abuser himself. It was a different age, but had your thinking been applied, maybe he could have been brought into the fold with sympathy and compassion, better policies might have resulted, and he himself might have taken a different course in life.

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