CUSU Women's Officer Claire Sosienski Smith addressed last year's Reclaim the Night rallyEvelina Gumileva

In the most recent survey, Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room reported that across 153 different UK universities, 62% of all students and recent graduates have experienced sexual violence, the majority of whom identify as either female, non-binary, or as having a disability. Only 2% of those experiencing sexual violence felt both able to report it to their university and satisfied with the reporting process.

In Cambridge, the Breaking the Silence campaign’s flagship project was its ‘Intervention Initiative’, a series of workshops to equip students in how to safely intervene in situations involving sexual harassment or assault. The initiative, which was introduced in October 2017, has been raised recently by Senior Tutors, in a discussion on the subject of a debate within Cambridge “highlighting the need for both College ad Departmental intervention.” Dr Mark Wormald, Secretary of the Senior Tutors' Committee, emphasised the need for “continued momentum” in the work of Breaking the Silence.

Gender and Policy Insights (GenPol), a Cambridge-based think tank, recently published a new report on sexual consent education at UK universities entitled, “Consent training and sexual violence prevention in UK universities”, as part of a larger research project concerning the question: “Can Education Stop Abuse?”.

Reclaim the Night marchVarsity

The think tank, made up of both students and academics, investigated good training practises, highlighted challenges and weaknesses in current education initiatives, and provided recommendations for those committed to ending gender-based abuse. Research found that in order to significantly reduce abuse cases, sexual violence training alone is not sufficient. The call for implementation of adequate policies at the institutional level alongside convincing leadership commitment to the cause, was cited as essential to the prevention of violence.

GenPol’s research revealed a need for institutions to address changes in disciplinary procedures and reporting mechanisms, whilst also reflecting commitment to change by high profile university members – in order to significantly reduce abuse cases, the data indicates that sexual violence training alone is not sufficient.

The ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign indicated a trend by Cambridge toward emphasising Cambridge’s commitment, following a sustained campaign by CUSU Women’s Campaign (WomCam) and women’s activists for Cambridge to introduce official sexual assault policies across colleges to support and protect its students. Women’s Officer Lola Olufemi, who oversaw the launch, said it was “a step in the right direction”.

Olufemi has urged, however, that campaign efforts must address questions of whether the University is “willing to fund the support services that are being outsourced”, of whether formal and informal disciplinary procedures are adequately responsive to students’ complaints, and how to push colleges to “have someone that students can access, that works specifically on sexual violence and assault”, in creating an environment where students feel able to access support.

The interplay between the normalisation and trivialisation of sexual abuse amongst drinking societies and “lad culture” has been previously researched: GenPol points out that the congregation of rape culture within the climate of UK universities campus housing structures is especially dangerous and is linked to higher rates of sexual violence.

Since the NUS first investigated the issue eight years ago, cases of sexual violence on campuses across the UK have remained decisively unchanged. In response to the escalating crisis, the NUS launched numerous initiatives including the nationwide campaign “I Heart Consent”, developed targeted online training courses, and provided a range of campaigning materials for student unions.

The workshop approach, the most common form of consent education across campuses, has been endorsed and supported by subject experts, violence prevention organisations, and survivors of sexual abuse as an effective prevention strategy.

NUS-backed consent workshops have been a target of recent criticism, primarily in the form of resistance from male students labelling the programme “patronising and accusatory”. GenPol recommends approaching the rejection of consent education by male participants through positive masculinity practises, such as encouraging the importance of male-allyship and denouncement of toxic masculinity traits.

By incorporating a broader focus on deeper inequality issues within gendered power systems, especially intersectional concerns such as LGBT+ and racial fetishisation into the discussion, we can continue to develop understanding of the benefits of a less violent world, whilst also maintaining the motivation to change at the individual level.


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Research in US universities demonstrates that the bystander approach, involving training to identify and intervene in violent behaviours, is particularly effective at preventing sexual violence and has been praised for creating safer and kinder environments.

GenPol’s recommendations for change in behaviours through consent workshops include building empathy, developing relationship and communication skills, and raising mental health awareness. Availability of separate workshops and support groups for victims and survivors of abuse, as well as immediate access to support provided by sexual violence professionals is crucial. Bystander intervention and an independent sexual violence advocate accessed through the counselling service is now part of the ‘Breaking the Silence’initiative.

Consent learning should not end after the initial training is offered, as is currently common during freshers’ week. By combining multiple training formats, covering more topics in depth and at a more personal level, individuals can be further encouraged to actively participate in shaping a world free of violence.

Women’s movements have fought to pioneer a critical shift in our understanding of sexual violence as a human rights violation (as opposed to a “deviant sexual behaviour”), whilst also re-defining sexual assault as not restricted just to physical coercion. This classification, as well as initiatives to raising awareness of consent and campaigns working to empower people of all genders to express consent safely, is now beginning to be adopted by organisations and legislatives across the world.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources:

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