Ruth Lewis reflects on progress on this social problem, covered in her recently published book.
Harvey Weisntein. #Times Up. #MeToo. Abuse by clergy, sports coaches and politicians. We’re in the midst of a newly-energised conversation about abuse, harassment, sexual violence, and conduct between women and men. For those of us who’ve worked in this field for decades, the new attention to this issue is astonishing. The revelations that men’s abuse of women is widespread and frequent are not.
While activists, service-providers, scholars and policy-makers have worked for years to tackle many forms of gender-based violence, few have focused on the university context. That is gradually changing. Since the publication in 2010 of the NUS study, Hidden Marks, that revealed that 14% of women students experienced serious physical or sexual assault and 68% experienced verbal harassment while they were at university, increasing attention is being paid to this problem. These rates of gender-based violence are similar in other countries where research has been conducted – the US, Canada, Australia, Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany. Overall, these studies shows that between a fifth and a quarter of women students have experienced some form of unwanted physical sexual experience and about two thirds experience sexual harassment. Clearly, gender-based violence, which can have devastating impacts, is an aspect of university life for far too many students.
The Government has paid some attention to this problem. It tasked Universities UK (UUK, an umbrella organisation of university ice-chancellors) with examining ‘violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students, with a focus on sexual violence and harassment’ (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015). In their report, UUK made a series of recommendations, including that university leaders should afford tackling violence against women and harassment the priority it deserves. UUK also recommended universities identify staff training needs to address this issue effectively and fairly, and improve reporting and recording systems. One year on, UUK published a follow-up report (UUK2017) which found that “significant but highly variable progress” (p6) had been made in universities.
Since the publication in 2010 of the NUS study, Hidden Marks, that revealed that 14% of women students experienced serious physical or sexual assault and 68% experienced verbal harassment while they were at university, increasing attention is being paid to this problem.
Here at Northumbria University, I have led a team of staff to train colleagues across the university about how to deal with disclosures of gender-based violence. This initiative is part of a project run from York University by Professor Vanita Sundaram; Northumbria University has piloted the training package designed by Professor Sundaram and her team. So far, about 70 non-academic staff in Accommodation, Security, Student Support and Library Services have been trained; the plan is to train academic staff in the coming year. Staff have been overwhelmingly positive about the training. Feedback includes: “Really helpful training, thanks very much.” “Course was very well run. Best course/training session I have attended in the past few year.” “Excellent. Trainers were brilliant. Lots of interaction with the group.” “I found the whole training very good although stats sometimes shocked. I will take a lot away on how to react and empathise.”
With my colleague Dr Anitha Sundari at Lincoln University, I have just published a book, Gender based violence in university communities: Policy, prevention and educational initiatives – the first in the UK to address this issue. It brings together analysis from scholars and practitioners who are working to improve responses to students affected by GBV and to prevent it happening. Guided by a feminist understanding of the problem, and drawing on a rich body of knowledge from scholars, activists and practitioners, we argue that future work should focus not only on sexual violence, but on gender-based violence in all its forms. That includes sexual harassment and violence as well as intimate partner violence, homophobic and transphobic abuse. It also includes attention to, not only behaviours, but also attitudes and cultural norms which support sexism and misogyny. It might surprise some people that intimate partner violence is a problem amongst university students. But the tragic death of Emily Drouet, student at Aberdeen University, whose boyfriend, Angus Milligan, also a student, was abusive to her, reveals the sad truth that intimate partner violence is not the preserve of older people. National Union of Students Scotland launched the ‘#emilytest’ campaign to bring attention to this problem. The campaign uses some of the text messages she sent friends, which are full of self-blame – “It’s my fault.” “I made him so angry” “I deserve it”. The aim is to draw attention to the dynamics of abuse and to help students and staff to see and name GBV so that no other students suffer as Emily did.
In the book, we also argue that, to make sure that strategies to prevent and respond to gender- are effective, we need to address the gaps in knowledge. This includes research to assess the prevalence of all forms of gender-based violence, including that committed by university students and staff. Attention to factors such as class, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality and dis/ability will be important to reveal the different experiences of students who are differently positioned in terms of social status. Research also needs to examine higher education institutions where there are higher and lower rates of gender-based violence to help understand which factors may prevent or facilitate it.
Enacting social change can feel like an uphill battle. Thousands of activists, service-providers and scholars working against gender-based violence can attest to this. In this work we have seen gradual rather than dramatic change over the last few decades, But change has happened. Institutions such as the police, social work, and schools have improved their understanding of gender-based violence and their responses to it. And social attitudes and norms are gradually changing too, so that gender-based violence is more often talked about, criticised and challenged. But these shifts are far from seismic; they are happening more gradually than the current attention to these issues might suggest. Research by Vanita Sundaram reported in our book, shows that young people label violence as wrong but also see it as acceptable in some situations. Their views are heavily influenced by ideas about what is appropriate or ‘normal’ gender behaviour, so in scenarios where young women sexually rejected young men, cheat on them or do not comply with them, the men’s violence was excused.
Enacting social change can feel like an uphill battle… But change has happened. Institutions such as the police, social work, and schools have improved their understanding of gender-based violence and their responses to it. And social attitudes and norms are gradually changing too, so that gender-based violence is more often talked about, criticised and challenged.
Studying at university should be an exciting, intellectually challenging, socially rewarding time. Violence and abuse has marred the experiences of too many, especially women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans students. In other areas of life, attitudes, norms and practices are changing so that gender-based violence is seen as a throw-back to an outdated past. It is now the turn of universities to bring about social change in their environments. We hope this book will help contribute to that movement that eradicates gender-based violence in universities.
Ruth Lewis is Associate-Professor of Sociology at Northumbria University.
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