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FAQ - Is sexual assault at universities increasing or decreasing?

Monday 11-01-2016 - 15:25

So a common question I get asked in relation to the presence of sexual violence at universities goes something along the lines of - Are things getting better or worse?

CN: Sexual violence and assault

Firstly, to even begin to think that this is answerable question is assuming that someone somewhere has an up-to-date record of numbers of incidents of sexual assault at universities. Spoiler alert - no one does, universities and colleges aren't really required to publicly produce records on incidents of sexual violence and harassment. The only possible way you could find this out at the moment is by doing a yearly freedom of information request to all institutions in the country. This of course, takes a lot of time and money. Personally I think that it would be a lot easier if publicly funded universities where just required to provide that information to an organisation like HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council England) or their equivalents in the nations.

If we did have an annual record it could then possibly tell if things were getting better or worse. I say "possibly" because it's important to realise that:

  1. Not everyone reports what has happened to them and the accessibility of reporting systems in universities and colleges is a huge factor in information collection.
  2. Campaigns that raise awareness of sexual assault are likely to lead to an increase of reporting due to more people being educated about their rights and feeling more comfortable in coming forward. This doesn't necessarily mean more sexual violence is happening.
  3. In some cases students are actively discouraged from reporting and prevented from coming forward which in turn protects the image of institutions.

For all these reasons and potentially more, numbers would still be quite inaccurate even if we collected that data, at least for the first few years.

At this current moment when we don't have access to information that could begin to tell us if we're making progress or not, I personally don't see the benefit of focusing on this question specifically. What is interesting though is the obsession with numbers and percentages when it comes to identifying the presence of sexual assault on campus. I recognise that stats are important, they make people wake up and come to terms with the reality faced by others. However, I don't want people to be complacent or dismissive of low numbers of sexual assault, the fact that even one single student should experience sexual assault should be a cause for outrage. For this reason I've started to make more of an attempt to provide more anecdotal references from students. By doing this, it allows people to listen to the stories that women students come to me with and remind people that our experiences are more than just numbers in charts.

Over the past few years, there have been major campaigns to raise awareness about sexual violence on campus which has made many institutions up their game. However, I believe there has yet to be any fundamental changes enforced on the education sector that would create a noticeable shift in the number of reports. This is something that we are hoping to achieve through the Stand By Me Campaign, which you can find out more about by clicking here.

The questions that we should be asking are: Why should it take freedom of information requests to find out these sort of things? Why aren't universities and colleges required to publicly share the number of reported sexual assaults? What are universities doing to help survivors of sexual assault on campus?

The answer to these questions are the things that will really make a difference.

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