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Girls & Women

Half of Britain's Female Students Have Experienced Unwanted Sexual Touching: Poll


Why Global Citizens Should Care
For everyone to be able to study in safety is a key aim of the UN’s Global Goals, which include goals for education and for gender equality — including an end to all violence against women. And yet, as this survey shows, sexual violence is rife at British universities. Join the movement by taking action here to help end violence against women and girls. 

A new poll that’s the largest of its kind carried out in the UK has found that nearly half of British female undergraduates (49%) have experienced unwanted sexual touching, compared to 3% of their male peers. 

The poll, carried out on behalf of sexual health charity Brook, found a seriously alarming gap in the number of these crimes that were reported, however — with just 5% of respondents saying they had reported the harassment. 

There are numerous reasons why someone might not report harassment, including embarassment or stigma, a lack of awareness about how to go about reporting harassment, a preference to try to forget about it, or not realising that their experience “counts” as sexual assault. 

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The survey highlighted, for example, that just 15% of respondents realised that the unwanted sexual behaviour they had experienced counted as sexual harassment. 

Sexual violence in educational institutions is an obstacle in achieving the UN’s Global Goals — 17 goals that work together to end extreme poverty by 2030 — in that it relates to Goal 4 for education access for everyone and Goal 5 for gender equality, which calls for an end to all gender-based violence. 

The survey questioned over 5,500 undergraduate students at British universities, in an effort to gauge the true scale of sexual violence on campus and during people’s time at university. And it exposes a worrying prevalence of incidents. 

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Of the sexual harassment incidents reported — ranging from cat-calling to unwanted sexually explicit messages to rape — a third had taken place on campus. 

More than half of respondents said that the unwanted behaviour was from another student, according to Brook. 

In total, the survey found that half of all UK university students had been exposed to unwanted sexual behaviours, including being followed, inappropriate touching, and being forced into sexual acts — but again, 92% of total incidents went unreported. 

Of those who said in the survey that they had been raped, only a quarter of the attacks were reported. 

“While we firmly believe that relationships and sex education needs to start in school, this worryingly low reporting rate suggests that much more needs to be done at every stage of academic life,” said Brook CEO Helen Marshall.

“It’s really important that universities provide students with information and education on sexual harassment and the law, and ensure that their reporting procedures and support services are accessible and welcoming,” she added. 

“We are failing our young people if they don’t know that the law protects them from the unwanted behaviours they are experiencing,” Marshall said, reported the Telegraph

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“Furthermore, we are failing to equip and empower young people to navigate their sexual lives and relationships,” she added. 

The survey findings highlight the importance of the shake-up announced this week in how primary and secondary schools will be teaching relationships and sex education (RSE). 

RSE is “still heavily focussed on STIs and pregnancy with only half of those surveyed having received information on consent and under a third on harassment,” according to Brook’s analysis.

The changes to the curriculum mean that issues of consent, and sexual and domestic violence will be raised with children from an earlier age — with issues such as menstrual health, sexting, the potential dangers of sharing explicit photos online, female genital mutilation, and “honour-based” violence also on the new curriculum. 

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The idea behind the changes is to make sure that children and young people are aware of potential risks, and know about the support systems in place to help protect them. 

The Brook survey also identified a “worrying” lack of knowledge about when proper consent can be given — especially when alcohol is involved.

The findings highlighted, for example, that just 52% of respondents know it’s not possible to give consent if you’re drunk.  

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told the Guardian: “Sexual violence and harassment is illegal and can have a devastating impact on its victims. These crimes should always be reported to the police.”

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The spokesperson added that the DfE has asked Universities UK to “establish a sexual violence and harassment Taskforce specifically to tackle the issue in higher education, and have tasked the Office for Students to work with universities to implement its recommendations.” 

Universities UK, the membership organisation of vice-chancellors, is due to publish its recommendations on tackling sexual harassment at universities in the spring. 

“It is important to create an environment where students feel able to come forward with the confidence that an incident will be addressed,” said a Universities UK spokesperson. “The wellbeing of students is a top priority for universities, and they continue to work to make their institutions safer places to live, work, and study so that no student or member of staff is subject to any form of sexual violence or misconduct.”