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23rd September 2014

No one is sure how to solve the problem of sexual harassment

With the release of the NUS Statistics that more than a third of students have suffered sexual harassment, Robert Firth takes a look at the problems surrounding the issue.

Last week the NUS released statistics showing that more than one third of women have faced sexual harassment at university. The NUS seems to blame the prevalence of sexual harassment at university on what it calls ‘Lad Culture’ which it defines as “behaviors and attitudes that belittle, dismiss, joke about or even seem to condone rape and sexual harassment.” Yet these are so widespread that it is impossible to pinpoint a specific place where lad culture asserts itself. And then how do you explain the 12 per cent of male students who also reported being sexually harassed?

A female student I spoke to said that sexual harassment is everywhere: “All of my girl friends have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their university life.” Yet she finds that this harassment has been normalized: “It is often brushed off as banter. I was catcalled five times last night walking back home.” After speaking to female students, the NUS statistics seem shocking only in how few girls they found to have experienced sexual harassment at university. Nearly every female I spoke to had a story: from the club bouncer who put his hand up a student’s skirt because he knew that “you all like it really,” to a guy who asked a friend of mine “how drunk are you?” before groping her in a club. What separates these two examples is how seriously they are viewed. In the words of one friend, “When it happens from older men people realise it is sexual harassment, but if it happens from guys our age it is brushed off as banter.”

This banter is what the NUS is keen to expose as unacceptable. Yet so far, the rhetoric from those campaigning against sexual harassment at universities has too often been confusing, contradictory and condescending. A national newspaper made the enlightening revelation that “you don’t have to be laddish,” whilst one commentator came out with the killer line, “We are the lads and we must take responsibility.” When the campaign against sexual harassment sounds so feeble it is not suprising “bantz” prevails.

There are some better examples of what those campaigning against sexual harassment have done, in so far as making it easier to report incidents. The ‘We Get It!’ campaign launched in conjunction with the University of Manchester and the Students’ Union has established two dedicated Sexual Harassment Advisors in the Equality and Diversity Team. Also, a reporting system for sexual harassment is launching on the homepage of an online portal for the issue in November.

If we can establish anything from the statistics released by the NUS it is that sexual harassment at university is a problem far more complex than the buzzwords thrown around, such as ‘Lad Culture’ and ‘Zero Tolerance’. Sexual harassment is normalized: it is happening every day; it is not confined to the habitat of the sports team and heavy drinking where the NUS in its ‘That’s what she said report’ have said it exists. It is happening to both male and female students but a lot more to the latter. The ‘We are the students and we must take responsibility’ approach seems to be the only way forward, it just needs something catchier.


Sexual Harassment Help at University of Manchester:


  • We Get It! Campaign Website
    Campaign set up by University of Manchester and Students’ Union. Get support, get informed and join the campaign against sexual harassment.



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