UK Universities' Lax Attitudes to Rape Culture are Failing Students

On February 6th, hundreds of people made up of students, alumni and staff joined a demonstration to protest the University of Warwick's lax attitude to rape culture on campus.

This follows news that the university had secretly reduced the punishments for a number of boys who'd been involved in an infamous group chat that exchanged disturbingly graphic comments about fellow students including, "she looks like a rape victim" and "sometimes it's fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls."

The initial punishment announced by the university as at least a ten-year ban from campus for all of the men involved was significantly lowered, with two of the students due to return to the university in September 2019. This sparked outrage among Warwick students who believe the minor punishment is unfair, especially considering a second group chat surfaced where the men showed little remorse for their actions, admitting they'd do it all again.

It also prompted the social media hashtag #ShameOnYouWarwick as well as an online petition against their return, which currently has over 75,000 supporters. Student, Lucy Mooring, who started the petition, says, "as a Warwick student, I am outraged and upset that my safety on campus is being disregarded for the future of privileged students."

Students pay to go to university and, in doing so, these institutions have a duty to protect them and appropriately punish offences against them. Warwick's actions have shown a lax attitude towards rape culture that certainly doesn't make the safety of its students a priority. However, previous studies show that they aren't the only UK university that doesn't take a firm stance on sexual offences.

In a study by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room, 8% of female students said they had been raped. This is double the 4% of all women in England and Wales that the Office of National Statistics estimates.

The same study revealed that 42% of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence as students, in comparison to 12.1% of the general population aged 16-59, according to the 2017 Crime Survey for England and Wales.

Universities across the country are fully aware of the problems they're facing. The University of Cambridge admitted to "a signficant problem" with sexual violence and harassment after the introduction of an online reporting system resulted in 173 complaints being made in nine months.

However, the processes of discipline following reports of harassment and violence just aren't good enough. There are often months of emails, meetings and phone calls before complaints are even begun to be addressed. And, the impacts of such failures are having severe impacts on victims.

A quarter of victims of sexual assault skip lectures and tutorials and even drop course units to avoid their perpetrators. A further 16 percent suspend their studies or drop out altogether.

The study by Revolt Sexual Assault also found that just 6 percent of victims report it to their university. Given Warwick's reaction to the group chat, it's honestly no wonder. Only 2 percent of respondents felt both comfortable to report their assault and satisfied with the reporting process.

One respondent said, "My university failed me entirely when I reported my sexual assault, and it was brushed under the carpet. I didn't bother reporting the second incident. I figured out that I [only] had the emotional strength to do one of two things: I could pursue a complaint against my rapist, or I could finish my degree."

A student at the University of Manchester told Her Campus that the disciplinary board refused to pursue their case against another student as not to disturb the ongoing police investigation.

This is despite the university's Conduct of Discipline of Students [October 2018], which states, "a student... against whom a criminal charge is pending, or who is the subject of police investigation may be suspended or excluded by the President and Vice-Chancellor pending the disciplinary hearing or the trial." How is such action supposed to taken when the disciplinary board refuses to pursue the complaint in the first place?

More needs to be done. Students who are victims of sexual violence and harassment are incredibly vulnerable and often far from home. When they seek help, they need a process that puts their wellbeing first as opposed to one that simply exacerbates their trauma.

Institutions have a duty of care to their students. Initiatives to move away from a normalised culture of sexual violence within the university environment are clearly needed and investing time and money into services that are compassionate towards those who have been sexually assaulted should not be optional.

UK universities are failing their students with their lax attitude towards sexual violence and rape culture and, quite frankly, they should be ashamed.