Combating Sexual Violence at University

By Alice Rubbra, History Student, Christchurch College

CW: sexual violence, violence against women, assault and rape

Awareness of sexual assault on university campuses is growing, with cases reaching media outlets worldwide. However, its prevention is far from solved. The work of OxPolicy and different campaign groups provides evidence of the scale of the problem, and the various channels through which it is being tackled.

A 2015 survey in the Telegraph found that one in three UK female students had been sexually assaulted or abused on campus; these cases ranged from unwanted advances to rape. Such high statistics reflects inert attitudes towards student safety. Indeed a Guardian publication stated that according to the EVAW, UK universities are legally obliged to protect students from sexual assault, but many are found to be in breach of these obligations. Yet some student groups have also demonstrated a reluctancy to discuss the issue. Recently at the University of York, students staged a walk-out from a consent workshop on the basis that they deemed it patronising. These workshops are often set up within Freshers’ Week in acknowledgement that not all students are provided this informative foundation at school.

The event in York brings up further questions about awareness and effectiveness of policies aimed at tackling assault, as there is much debate as to at what age conversations on consent and preventing violence should be held. I myself only had one class on consent and no conversation about my safety before preparing to leave for university. On top of this, the British government took the decision last year to not make sex education compulsory in schools; this means that when schools decide to undertake lessons in sex education, there is no standardised format and no necessary focus on eliminating the culturally ingrained reasons for why sexual assault has and still remains a pervasive issue.

But despite cases of apathy in combatting sexual violence, there are many groups that have taken the issue on and looked at ways to resolve it. OxPolicy is a Student-led Think Tank here in Oxford, that undertakes research addressing various social issues, often tying into local life in the city. Publications last year reached national media outlets such as the Guardian. As such, this year a team of OxPolicy researchers undertook a project investigating ways to tackle sexual violence at university. To briefly outline this process, it began – as with any essay at Oxford – in the Bodleian libraries! To address such a broad topic, the team started gathering specific data here, as well as analysing prevention programmes such as self-defence. The information has since been synthesised into a report which will then be published and used by groups aiming to set up programmes to combat sexual violence. As well as tackling how to solve such a deep-rooted problem as sexual violence, OxPolicy is challenging apathy towards such social issues. The group brings students face to face with society’s biggest issues, one’s that are often on their doorstep, allowing them the space to create their own solutions. The publication should be out later this year.

Whilst OxPolicy draws on programmes of prevention, there are many pre-existing campaigns working at the grass-roots level to tackle sexual violence at university. “It Happens Here” is a campaign set up in universities with the aim of raising awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual violence. To combat this, the programme has developed two areas of work – advocacy and outreach; the former focuses on engaging with students directly through common rooms and the latter focuses on publicising the issue within universities and also strengthening the community through supporting appropriate charities. In Oxford, the campaign raised funds for the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Center. The focal point of the campaign is to tackle ignorance and apathy by making people recognize that sexual violence can happen anywhere at any time. Whilst “It Happens Here” is about raising awareness, campaigns such as “Good Night Out” look to prevent assault and harassment by engaging with high-risk venues, such as bars, clubs and pubs. The campaign aims to train staff to recognize, intervene and prevent harassment whilst being available for customers to report incidents to. Focused at the grassroots, both campaigns aim to alleviate the immediacy of the issue.

As such, whilst statistics on sexual violence remain high and reports of apathy are circulated, many are speaking out. From my point of view, work from OxPolicy and university campaigns are covering the relevant areas needed to prevent sexual violence, from raising awareness nationally and within universities to creating safer spaces within towns and cities. But it’s telling how these groups are often seen as the first line of defence. Balancing out the responsibility, the next step may be to introduce preventative measures earlier than  university-levels. Stopping apathetic attitudes towards sexual violence demands sufficient education in the issue. So, whilst sex education remains non-compulsory, without stricter guidelines of what should be discussed, universities and their campaign groups are often left in the exposed position of acting as a sole stage of prevention.


Note from the OxPolicy committee:

We will soon publish a report about effective sexual assault prevention training. If you are interested in this topic, please continue to check our website, Facebook, and Twitter for the report.

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