“It’s all standard behaviour.” So what is all the fuss about?

There has been a lot of awareness raised recently around gender based violence and questions around the idea of standard behaviour.  In this opinion piece, Dr Melanie Crofts, Senior lecturer at The University of Northampton discusses widespread sexual harassment and violence on university campuses, the efforts UoN are making to tackle the issue through campaigns such as I **heart** Consent and recognising that harassment occurs everywhere, not just to women working with high powered men.

“The strip bars and lairy awful watering holes… It’s all standard behaviour” (Camilla Long on Twitter 24.1.18)

January 2018 saw, once again, news about women being groped, sexually harassed and propositioned whilst working as hostesses at a men only fundraising event for the President’s Club charity held at The Dorchester.  Talking about this event, journalist Camilla Long questioned why this was even a story.  What did the hostesses expect? This was “standard behaviour” in these kinds of places.  So why should we be bothered?  In recent months we have heard allegations of sexual assault and harassment within Parliament, sport, the film industry and in the theatre, to name a few.  The Fawcett Society published a report on the 23rd January 2018, the Sex Discrimination Law Review Report, which concluded that “Almost a fifth of women aged 16 or over have experienced sexual assault…. These crimes are part of an environment of misogynistic abuse and harassment.” (p8)

And there it is, the reason we should all be concerned. In 2018, the year we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave (some) women the right to vote, we are still experiencing an environment where misogyny is still rife and where sexual harassment is regarded by some (many?) as “standard behaviour”.  We may now have equal suffrage, but clearly there is still a long way to go.  Unfortunately the issues are not just apparent when the rich, famous and powerful are involved.  Yes, this is when it hits the headlines, but at some point the media furore will abate and I suspect we return to a situation where these stories no longer make headline news.

‘We need to look closer to home’ – harassment on university campuses

We need to look closer to home.  If this kind of behaviour really is “standard”, how do we change this? Campaigns such as #metoo and #everydaysexism have certainly drawn attention to the issues and attracted some high profile support.  However, the question for me is how do we influence attitudes and behaviour in our own spheres of life?  How do we educate people that this should not be normal or “standard” behaviour? We need to get across that these behaviours are not just occurring in high profile sectors.  For example, it has long been known that sexism, sexual harassment and violence is widespread on university campuses.   The NUS published a report in 2010 ‘Hidden Marks: A study of women students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault’ which highlighted that sexual harassment/violence was an everyday occurrence for some women (p3).  Similar conclusions were drawn by the Universities UK report ‘Changing the Culture’ published in October 2016.  It was as a result of the Taskforce report that the Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE) devoted it’s Catalyst Fund for projects which addressed sexual violence, harassment and hate on campuses. 63 projects were funded in total (out of 109 Higher Education Institutions in England) demonstrating that it isn’t normative practice for all Higher Education Institutions get funding to address this problem.

‘The New Spaces’ project – supporting student to disclose sexual violence safely

The University of Northampton was awarded just over £40,000 from the Catalyst Fund.  The ‘New Spaces’ project considers the policies, processes and mechanisms which are in place to support women making disclosures of sexual violence.  The aim is to make recommendations to ensure robust reporting strategies and a joined up approach to addressing support for both victims and staff, to whom disclosures are often made.  A holistic approach to ensuring that victims of sexual violence and harassment are given appropriate and timely support is needed.  The impact of experiencing sexual violence can be varied and severe and clearly has implications beyond a student’s academic engagement.  Mental health and counselling services are key in providing an adequate response for victims, both within the university and externally.  This means involvement from student support services are vital.  Therefore, support services, which are already stretched, need to be adequately resourced to be able to provide appropriate assistance.  As a result of early findings in this project a ‘Gender-based Violence Working Group’ has been proposed with the aim of implementing the eventual recommendations from the ‘New Spaces’ project.  Unfortunately the response to this proposal has been that “[t] the issue of gender based violence is obviously very important to us. However, as they stand we do not feel that the Terms of Reference and membership of the proposed working group would achieve the proposed objectives.” I will leave that there.

In addition to considering processes and support mechanisms, education is key to changing the culture within universities (and we couldn’t be better placed!).  For the past three years there has been a campaign, run by a small number of staff at the University of Northampton, based on the NUS, campaign, I *Heart* Consent. ‘I *Heart* Consent week’ has had contributions from academics, external support services, the counselling and mental health team at the university and students from the Students’ Union.  This year sessions covered bystander training, the meaning of consent in law, consent and the LGBTQ+ community and many more topics.  However, on the whole, sessions were poorly attended (unless run as part of a lecture already taking place) and mostly attended by female students (it is a ‘woman’s’ issue, after all!).  The message is slow in getting through.  Without the week being part and parcel of the institutional events calendar and organised by the university, with sufficient resources devoted to it, it is unlikely that ‘I *Heart* Consent week’ will have the desired impact of engaging male staff and students, challenging perceptions and knowledge of consent and changing institutional culture.

‘What’s all the fuss about?’ Tackling power and ‘standard behaviour’

My final point relates to the issue of power.  There has to be a recognition that sexual violence and harassment often involves significant power differentials.  This is illustrated very clearly in the context of universities.  We are not only talking about incidents between students, but there has to be an appreciation that where intimate relationships between staff and students occur there is a risk of abuse of power which can result in sexual harassment and violence.  For example, too often relationships between staff and students are ignored because they are, after all, consenting adults.  However, this fails to recognise the potential abuse of power (most often with male lecturers having relationships with younger, female, students) and the difficulties in leaving such relationships or reporting sexual violence when it occurs.

So, what is all the fuss about? The impact of sexual violence and harassment are far reaching.  The issues don’t just impact women who work with powerful and high profile men. Taking the issues seriously, having robust processes in place for reporting incidences and supporting women are essential.  This includes universities. Universities need to take the issues of sexual harassment, violence and the power dynamics which exist seriously.  A failure to do so has implications for academic work, mental health, physical health and the overall safety of staff and students on campuses.

Melanie Crofts
Senior Lecturer in Law