Sexual misconduct is rife at UK universities, with more than half of students saying they have experienced unwanted advances and assault, ranging from explicit messages to rape, research shows.
But a survey of 5,649 students, for the charity Brook and the student database Dig-In, found that only a fraction of those affected reported the incidents to their university or the police, and many admitted a lack of understanding of what legally constitutes sexual harassment and violence.
In the study, conducted in January, 53% of respondents said they had encountered unwelcome sexual behaviour, including inappropriate touching, explicit messages, catcalling, being followed, and being forced into sex or sexual acts.
Overall, 8% of respondents said they reported these incidents to the police or their university, including only a quarter of students who said they were raped or forced into other sexual acts.
Nearly half (49%) of the women surveyed said they had been touched inappropriately but only 5% reported it. A quarter (26%) of women said they had been sent unwanted sexually explicit messages but only 3% reported it.
More than half (53%) of respondents said the perpetrator of the unwanted sexual behaviour was another student. Almost a third (30%) of the reported incidents took place on campus.
The study found that women were far more likely than men to experience unwanted sexual behaviour, with 49% of women reporting they had been touched inappropriately, compared with 3% of men. Nearly two-thirds of women surveyed said they did not feel confident in saying no to sex for fear it might lead to violence.
The survey, the largest conducted on sexual violence and harassment at UK universities, also identified a significant gap in students’ understanding of consent and what constitutes sexual harassment and violence.
Only 15% of those surveyed said unwanted sexual behaviour counted as sexual harassment, and only half (52%) said they understood that someone could not consent to sex if they were drunk.
Helen Marshall, the chief executive of Brook, a young people’s sexual health and wellbeing charity, said schools and universities were failing young people if they did not know that the law protected them from unwanted sexual behaviour.
She called for better relationships and sex education in schools, noting that only half of respondents said they had received information on consent and less than a third were informed about what constitutes harassment.
Marshall added: “This worryingly low reporting rate suggests that much more needs to be done at every stage of academic life. It’s really important that universities provide students with information and education on sexual harassment and the law, and ensure that their reporting procedures and support services are accessible and welcoming.”
Dr Anna Bull, the co-founder of the 1752 Group, which was set up to address staff-student sexual harassment in higher education, said the study confirmed “a pattern of high levels of sexual harassment and violence experienced especially by female students, but with low levels of reporting to the police or to the institution”.
She said that despite many universities changing the way they handled sexual misconduct, “there remains a huge amount of work to be done to effectively prevent and respond to it”.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK said numerous universities ran consent classes for students. “UUK continues to work with the sector and will publish recommendations in the spring on what further action is necessary to drive improvement in this important agenda,” the spokeswoman said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Sexual violence and harassment is illegal and can have a devastating impact on its victims. These crimes should always be reported to the police.
“We have asked Universities UK to establish a sexual violence and harassment taskforce specifically to tackle the issue in higher education, and have tasked the Office for Students to work with universities to implement its recommendations.
“Issues such as these are exactly why just yesterday the education secretary pressed ahead with plans to update sex education guidance for schools for the first time in nearly two decades. We are also introducing relationships education to ensure all children are taught about healthy, respectful relationships and can recognise, seek help and report inappropriate behaviour, harassment, abuse or exploitation.”
‘It’s been an absolutely humiliating process’
A third-year undergraduate student at a university in Leeds made a complaint in the summer of 2018 after she alleged that another student raped her. “I had bruises and cuts all over my chest and back,” she said. She also sustained a vaginal tear and internal bleeding.
The student said the lecturer who investigated her complaint asked her how much she had been drinking before the alleged assault, leaving her feeling further distress and humiliation.
The university informed the student there was insufficient evidence to substantiate her complaint. Although the university said her alleged attacker would be barred from being in the same building as her when she was in the department, this restriction did not cover other areas of the campus, including the library and cafe.
She said: “I have since seen him on campus four times and I have had severe panic attacks each time. The first time I ran away and it took me half an hour to stop hyperventilating.”
Frustrated with the university’s handling of her complaint, the student went to the police last autumn. She said: “The police took me more seriously. The officer interviewed me for two hours and has taken the statements of several witnesses.”
The student said the university refused her request to suspend her alleged attacker while the police investigation was ongoing. She was reluctant to appeal against the university’s investigation because “it’s been an absolutely humiliating process”.