Tackling the normalisation of sexual harassment in higher education

A number of important topics tend to crop up when reminiscing with friends about our school days: what was our most embarrassing moment with a crush? Why were we so obsessed with Beanie Babies? How many teachers do we remember acting inappropriately?

 The latter question, significantly more pressing than toys and fleeting childhood romances, has a tendency to lead to more pressing and uncomfortable recollections: the married teacher who would constantly stroke his hands through an 11-year-old girl’s hair; the 15-year-old who would pay her geography teacher visits after hours; that teacher who kept squeezing a friend’s knee at the back of the coach on a school trip. It’s bizarre how we laugh about these incidents as if they were a totally normal facet of our education – but incidents like these are so widespread, a lot of people will have similar stories when recalling their time in education.

In March 2017, the Guardian revealed that sexual harassment in UK universities was at an epidemic level. It was reported that students across 120 universities had made at least 169 allegations of harassment, misconduct and gender violence against academic and non-academic staff between 2011-12 to 2016-17. There were a further 127 allegations about staff made by colleagues. Harassment often goes unreported , be that in the workplace or in a school environment – meaning these findings are only considered to be the tip of the iceberg. These stats don’t come from nowhere; they are the result of conditioning that starts as soon as we enter education aged three, with particular attention needing to be given to how girls are taught to accept alarming behaviour.

Discussions on these issues are difficult and sensitive: and yet, for society’s unwillingness to talk about it, sexual harassment is alarmingly commonplace. Refuge says today 1 in 5 women in the UK have experienced sexual violence. The government’s plans to make sex education compulsory from the age of four is a step in the right direction, however something bigger needs to be addressed. As it stands, the harassment of young women is an issue that starts in our schools before becoming something that is shamefully accepted and hidden away at university.  

“As it stands, the harassment of young women is an issue that starts in our schools before becoming something that is shamefully accepted and hidden away at university.”

As problematic as Lena Dunham is, she touched on something significant in her latest series of Girls, in the episode ‘American Bitch’. Dunham’s character, Hannah, talks with a male author accused of sexual misconduct with college girls. They talk about how, even though it might seem consensual, there’s a lot more at play in such “relationships”: power dynamics, validation, fear. Hannah reveals that as a child, one of her male teachers used to rub her neck and says looking back it’s still difficult for her to call him out for molestation. She says she was once shot down by an old classmate when even mentioning the word. Looking back at my school days, the same was true there. Those aforementioned tales of impropriety between teachers and students (and teachers and teachers) were never taken very seriously. It never really struck us at the time how awful these occurrences were; that it wasn’t a “compliment” or funny that certain teachers were singling students out. Whenever a new rumour about an old teacher arises, my school friends’ group chat will allude to these “paedo teachers” with a disconcerting acceptance of our past reality.

“We all thought he was a bit weird,” said a former pupil of Bristol’s Clifton College about Jonathan Thompson-Glover, a German teacher who was eventually convicted for filming children in the toilets, and later found guilty of historical sex offences against boys at his holiday home. “A few people made ‘paedo’ jokes about him, but I don’t think anyone really took it seriously, even though there was a lot of questionable behaviour looking back.” This troubling sense of normalcy makes the implications of sexual harassment at university difficult to comprehend and confront in a meaningful way.

Neil McArthur, an academic from the University of Manitoba, recently said banning sexual relationships between teaching staff and students would “infringe one of the basic rights of citizens”. He claimed that female students in such relationships rarely feel exploited, and that often staff-student affairs lead to long-term partnerships. Of course, at university age putting restrictions on what might well be a consensual relationship becomes a difficult area to navigate. However, there is a danger that McArthur’s assertion that most students don’t feel exploited by such relationships might serve to undermine those who do. By contentiously saying it’s completely OK, he not only takes away accountability from those in positions of responsibility, but also detracts from the feelings of legitimacy for those students who have been harassed. It makes it harder for those students to feel it’s an issue worth talking about.

Thankfully, I never faced harassment during my undergraduate degree. The gossip about a lecturer saying he’d give one of his students a First if she gave him head may have just been a rumour, but it’s worrying that it had taken on the status of funny college folklore rather than being perceived as a real concern. If I had been victim to any such harassment – from staff or a fellow student – I’m not actually sure who I would have spoken to. Even if there are purported channels to go through, there is no guarantee of receiving help. I spoke to an undergraduate at City, University of London who she and her friends felt pressured to keep regular sexual harassment by a member of staff quiet, because he had a family with a young child: “He made me feel guilty – if I had turned him in he would have lost his job, and it would have affected his baby”. The City student reported the harassment in her first year of study, after he repeatedly followed her and her friends to bars and made inappropriate comments – however, no action was taken because no one else came forward. The student decided not to follow it up, again citing concerns about the teacher’s livelihood.

“He made me feel guilty – if I had turned him in he would have lost his job, and it would have affected his baby.”

The problem isn’t limited to under-reported staff-student relations either, but exists within the student body too. A former student from the University of Bristol reported her lack of faith in higher educational institutions, following the lack of support she received after reporting sexual harassment; “I was encouraged to report it to the university and told that they would pursue it, so I told the entire story to a stranger, which was really traumatic but I hoped it would help me” she said. “Afterwards they told me there was nothing they could do except give him a restraining order. They claim to support survivors but none of the staff have any training in it because they refuse to acknowledge it’s an issue. Student counsellors turn people away because they say they can’t help us due to lack of training. I ultimately left because I couldn’t stand to see my rapist around the campus.” 

Her story isn’t a lone case. Last month, the Feminist Society at the University of Roehampton demanded more support for those who have suffered sexual assault – suggesting that universities remain awkwardly ill-equipped to deal with such offences. Students from Goldsmiths have been protesting too, calling for a transparent discussion about sexual assault in response to what they see as the ‘normalisation’ of harassment. “I think it’s telling they choose to pretend sexual violence is not even an issue let alone something that should be punished,” said the aforementioned student, who felt that her Russell Group university was unwilling to help in order to protect its reputation.

Tackling awareness is a step in the right direction: in the past education surrounding consent and grooming has certainly been convoluted. For some, sex education was limited to contraception and STIs, meaning any deviant behaviour from adults wasn’t something they recognised. For one former school nurse whom I spoke to, the problem cannot be solved by education alone: “There’s a huge pressure to expose in state schools, but private schools have a lot more flexibility to ‘manage’ things. Compulsory sex education is a piece of the puzzle, but currently people don’t have confidence in support services if they do decide to report these incidences.”

Society must be willing to have open discussions about abuses of power in education; which focus on the well-being of victims as opposed to the repercussions for the institutions and perpetrators. Otherwise, this mammoth problem will continue. Sexual harassment needs to be taken more seriously to ensure victims feel comfortable in speaking out. Regarding consent – particularly in relationships between university students and staff – we cannot simply pretend that the problematic gender and power dynamics do not exist. And we cannot possibly hope to address the issue if people are too afraid to talk. There has already been quite enough sweeping under the rug.

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