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Over half of students experience sexual misconduct

Sexual assault and misconduct was experienced by 56 per cent respondents in a survey of 5600 students

A new survey shows that more than half of students in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour while at university. The survey of 5649 students, conducted in January, had 56 per cent of respondents say that they had encountered sexual misconduct including explicit messages, catcalling, being followed and sexual assault. Of this 56 per cent, only 15 per cent understood that this behaviour counted as sexual harassment, with many respondents admitting that they didn’t know what legally constitutes sexual harassment or violence.

Concerns were also raised over how few of these incidents were being reported to either the police or the university with only eight per cent of those who experienced unwanted sexual behaviour reporting the incident. Only a quarter of respondents who said they were raped or forced into other sexual acts had reported it; 49 per cent of women said they had been touched inappropriately but only five per cent reported it and 26 per cent of women said they received unwanted sexually explicit messages, but only three per cent reported it.

The survey also found that women were more likely than men to experience unwanted sexual behaviour with only three per cent of men reporting that they had been touched inappropriately. It was also found that over half of perpetrators were other students and 30 per cent of incidents took place on university campuses.

The survey is the largest conducted on sexual violence and harassment at UK universities and was conducted by the sexual health and wellbeing charity, Brook, and the student database Dig-In. Helen Marshall, the chief executive of Brook said of the results: “If ever there was a reminder of the importance of high quality, comprehensive relationships and sex education (RSE) in schools and universities – this is it. We are failing our young people if they don’t know that the law protects them from the unwanted behaviours they are experiencing. Furthermore, we are failing to equip and empower young people to navigate their sexual lives and relationships.”

The results corroborate a similar study undertaken last year by the charities Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room which found 62 per cent of students had experienced unwanted sexual activity and only a tenth reported the incident to their universities or police.

Similarly, a survey from last year by the NUS in which 41 per cent of the 1839 respondents said that they had experienced unwelcome sexual behaviour from members of university staff, it similarly found that less than 10 per cent of these incidents were reported and more than half of those thought the University did not respond adequately.

The issue of sexual harassment at university was brought to light again following the controversy surrounding Warwick University’s handling of an incident where rape threats were made in a group chat. The two male undergraduates responsible were subsequently banned from campus for ten years but their punishment was soon reduced to one year. Though it was later announced that the students wouldn’t be returning to campus, the University was criticised in its response, with accusations that they had forgotten the victims. 

A Department for Education spokesperson, responding to the survey, 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  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.”

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