As public bodies, British universities have the legal duty to ensure that all students can get their education in a safe environment, which includes protection from sexual violence. However, even these days, cases of sexual misconduct are handled in an unlawful and discriminatory way.
British students don’t have a clear regulatory system to tell them where to look for help in case of experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment. There are universities that funnel the complaints through their own discipline system, so the students aren’t left to googling phrases such as “sexual harassment law UK” and “what to do” on their own, but this method isn’t flawless.
Furthermore, sexual violence in British universities is an institutional problem. According to the report published by the University and College Union, more than half of 5,649 surveyed students experienced unwanted advances and assault, ranging from explicit messages to even rape.
While the numbers speak for themselves, only a fraction of those affected report the incidents, and many admit that they lack understanding of what legally constitutes sexual harassment and violence. This article aims to dispel any doubts a person might be left with.
How Sexual Harassment Is Defined by Law
According to the Equality Act of 2010, sexual harassment can be defined as unwanted physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating the recipient’s dignity or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the recipient. Besides the action, the intentions also matter, so even if the affected person didn’t feel upset, scared, offended, or humiliated, it can still be considered sexual harassment.
What is more, according to the same act, this unwanted conduct can happen in person, on the phone, by text or email, or online. Both the victim and the offender can be of any gender.
Because the act recognises sexual harassment as a form of unlawful discrimination, people are legally protected from sexual harassment in places such as work, transport, and at schools, colleges and universities.
When Sexual Harassment Is a Crime
Some forms of sexual harassment are recognised as those that automatically break England and Wales’s criminal law.
- indecent exposure,
- “upskirting” (taking a sexually intrusive photograph up someone’s skirt without their permission),
- any sexual harassment involving physical contact (in both English and Welsh law, this equals a sexual assault).
Depending on the specific situation, other forms of sexual harassment might also break criminal law. For instance, if, on more than one occasion, someone carries out sexual harassment behaviours intending to cause someone else to feel alarmed or distressed, they may be committing a crime.
What Do I Need to Prove Sexual Harassment?
When you want to report sexual harassment, it’s crucial that you have proof. For instance, you can keep a diary and write down all the remarks and incidents as well as the details of your attempts to have these issues dealt with. As some cases might rely on one person’s word against another’s, your notes should also include the dates and times of all incidents. What’s more, you need to keep a copy of all offensive messages you receive, save screenshots, postings, etc.
Additionally, you can try to gather witness testimonies. There may be a chance that someone witnessed the harassment, even if just for a brief moment. To further strengthen your case, try to obtain your university’s sexual harassment policy so you have something to refer back to.
Where to Report?
While it’s advised to report sexual harassment and violence to the police, you can go through other instances or at least reach out for help first.
Here are the support mechanisms you can turn to:
At the University
Though the offered services may vary, all universities should have the resources to provide sexual harassment victims with access to support from, for example:
- halls of residence wardens living on-site among students, who can be an immediate source of help;
- counselling support and pastoral advisers who are present on most campuses;
- peer support networks for those who may find it easier to talk to other students rather than professors or university employees;
- welfare support available from student’s union offices.
Specialist Support Organisations
It’s essential to note that none of the organisations listed below will make you report the harassment or the assault to the police if you don’t want to. Also, if you prefer not to speak on the phone, you can contact them by email.
Nightline is a telephone support service run and operated by students on university campuses around the country. This service guarantees full anonymity and confidentiality.
Rape Crisis operates as a charity. They offer safe, free, and confidential support as well as all the information a victim of sexual harassment or violence might need.
Victim Support is an independent charity dedicated to supporting victims of crime and traumatic incidents in England and Wales. They provide assistance from specialists who help people cope with the trauma and recover.
Sexual violence and harassment are illegal and can have a devastating impact on their victims. Students who experience it at universities may later suffer from trauma that can be deepened if handled improperly. For this reason, it’s vital to learn where and how to look for help and support.
A lot has changed since the Equality Act of 2010 was put into place to legally protect people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society. However, when it comes to changing the way universities handle sexual misconduct, there’s still a lot to be done to ensure that such cases are effectively responded to and prevented.
Victims of sexual harassment can report what happened to them using the resources provided by the university they attend or contact specialist support organisations. It’s also recommended that they don’t refrain from contacting the police.