No more laissez-faire: St Andrews must take action against sexual harassment at university

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If you still somehow think that sexual harassment isn’t a serious issue at UK universities, it’s time to reconsider: a recent survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) has revealed that one in four students, and almost a third of female students, have experienced unwanted sexual advances at some point during their university years.

Add to this the staggering statistic published by the Cambridge University Students’ Union that 88 per cent of sexual assaults at the university go unreported, and the severity of the issue is beyond dispute. Not only is sexual harassment still a woefully common occurrence, but the mentality towards it is also distressingly laissez-faire. If we are to put an end to this systemic problem of sexual harassment at UK universities, this mentality needs to change.

Victims of sexual assault too often choose to “let it go” instead of seeking justice. Why is this the case? One key reason is that victims feel ashamed of what has happened to them, and afraid of the further physical, mental and emotional harms that may come to them if they choose to file a report. And because the likelihood of a report actually resulting in a conviction is so slim, those risks simply don’t seem to be worth taking.

The University’s approach to the issue in St Andrews hasn’t helped. Students who wish to report an incident of sexual assault face a daunting, frustrating bureaucratic system that provides little resolution.

Take this example: during Freshers’ Week, a student was sexually assaulted at the Student’s Union when someone put their hand up her skirt. She reported the incident to student services, only to face a week of endless, repetitive interrogations as she was passed from department to department, authority to authority.

This should have been an open and shut case – the incident occurred, it later transpired, directly in front of a security camera. For some reason she was told, it hadn’t been turned on. In any case, she was still able to offer a detailed physical description of her assailant. This wasn’t enough, though, and the investigation ground to a stuttering halt, the issue entirely unresolved. She was left upset, frustrated and exhausted by the emotional trauma of the redundant and ultimately fruitless investigation.

On the surface, St Andrews’ policy towards sexual harassment ticks all the right boxes. A quick Google search reveals that the university’s stance against, and information on sexual harassment is both much more visible and much more thorough than that of many UK universities including Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The situation on the ground, however, is markedly different. The student mentioned above for example, was farcically assigned a personal bodyguard to accompany her around town whilst the investigation deliberated (that same investigation that so obstinately refused to act on the crime that had already actually happened) .

Like the night buses run by the University in the wake of last year’s sexual assaults, it was a measure that failed to acknowledge that sexual assault is a crime committed far more by people known to the victim than something that happens in back alleys at night. Taking students through the motions without actually reaching some kind of resolution only traumatises them, and discourages other victims from seeking help. Even if convictions can’t always be made, our university needs to work harder to prevent sexual assault in the first place.

The roots of the problem lie in the kind of “lad culture” that is still prevalent at UK universities, and in the fact that people aren’t taking issues of sexual misconduct seriously enough. The NUS defines “lad culture” as a set of “behaviour and attitudes that…belittle, dismiss, joke about or even seem to condone rape and sexual assault”. What is perhaps most disturbing about the aforementioned student’s case is that when she confronted her assailant directly after the incident, he and his friends simply smirked and laughed and accused her of overreacting.

It’s not enough for victims to take harassment seriously – perpetrators also need to understand that what they’ve done isn’t a joke, it’s a crime. Laura Bates, who is working as the Lad Culture National Strategy Team Ambassador for the Everyday Sexism project, emphasized a “lack of awareness” over what constitutes sexual assault as “a major part of the problem”.

Other UK universities have implemented programs to tackle the culture of misogyny and sexism among the student body head-on. At Oxford, students were required to attend information sessions that addressed the issue, informing students about the severity of sexual harassment and the consequences students would face should they engage in it. St Andrews’ students would undoubtedly benefit from something like this, especially during Freshers’ Week, when students are exploring their new environment and learning how they’re expected to behave. St Andrews’ firm stance against sexual harassment needs to be made clear from the very beginning.

While sexual harassment is a problem throughout society as a whole, it is clearly particularly problematic within the university environment. Toni Pearce, President of the NUS, said “we still keep hearing from universities that there is no fear, no intimidation, no problem well this new research says otherwise”. This is true of St Andrews as well. St Andrews may seem like a kind of Never-Never Land where bad things don’t really happen, but sexual harassment and assault are as real and serious dangers as they are anywhere in the country. It’s about time we started acting like it.

1 COMMENT

  1. Well done on highlighting the lad culture issue. This is a major problem and a lot more could be done to tackle it (Ondrej Hajda’s proposals re sexual consent seem like a good start). But I also worry about the effect this kind of reporting might have on students who might consider coming to Student Services to get help, but are put off by the idea of an investigation. Does one bad case mean that every student who wants to report an assault faces “a daunting, frustrating bureaucratic system that provides little resolution”?

    It’s not just this article, but The Saint often seems to criticize Student Services and seems to think of itself as some kind of crusading light engaging with students on important issues, and the university as the obstacle which prevents them getting help. I think sometimes it’s actually the other way round.

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