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Joanna Williams: The university sexual harassment industry in overdrive. With a barrage of dodgy stats


A third of female students have been groped and one in four have experienced ‘unwanted sexual advances’. These shock statistics come from a survey into ‘Lad Culture and Sexism’ conducted by the National Union of Students. They have been widely and uncritically reported everywhere from The Telegraph to The New Statesman.

Readers without recent experience of universities might be forgiven for thinking that with such prevalent ‘groping’, today’s campus is akin to a 1970s’ television studio. Dig beneath the headlines however and what we find is some dodgy research that has been exploited to create a panic and justify an NUS campaign.

Let’s start with the most shocking claim that a third of the 2156 respondents to the online survey have been ‘inappropriately touched’. One problem here is that a great deal of behaviour is conflated. Everything from touching that takes place between people who know each other, are fully clothed and in public; to far more serious sexual assaults, are all lumped together.

Bizarrely enough, the question posed to students includes ‘bumping’ in the same category as ‘unwanted sexual advances, groping and inappropriate touching’. Assuming ‘bumping’ is not being employed as a cunning euphemism, there can’t be a student alive who has made it out of a crowded bar without having been bumped into. Unfortunately, as the survey was conducted online, we can never know how many of the roughly 700 students have been ‘groped’ and how many have been ‘bumped’.

More worryingly yet, further headlines are created not by behaviour students have experienced themselves, but by behaviour they report others as having experienced. Two-thirds of the respondents claim to have seen their peers ‘putting up with unwanted sexual comments’. Interestingly, only a third have ‘witnessed a student being verbally harassed because of their gender’. So, half of these unwanted comments fall short of verbal harassment. As this is ‘second hand’ behaviour that is being reported we can never know what constituted such sexual comments or even if they were genuinely unwanted by the recipient or only perceived that way by the witness.By asking people to report on the experiences of their peers the NUS researchers are asking respondents to project their own feelings on to other people.

Other attempts at alarming us with the debauchery of campus ‘lad culture’ likewise stand little scrutiny. We’re told a third of the students who completed the survey have had overtly sexual conversations aimed at them and a quarter have experienced unwanted sexual advances. But really, just how shocking is this? Many of the respondents are aged 18 – 20, most, we can imagine, are living away from home for the first time. Young people get drunk, go out ‘on the pull’, forge relationships with each other and often end up having sex. For all this to take place overtly sexual conversations will be had and sexual advances will be made. This has always been the case.

Perhaps the only really shocking statistic is that a full three quarters of the self-selecting respondents have never experienced an unwanted sexual advance. Given the time and effort most students put into getting ready for a night out I can only assume there are a lot of disappointed people out there.

We could write this latest NUS report off as bad research. However, the alarmism and panic such reports generate have dire consequences for male and female students alike. Female students are taught be ever-vigilant victims, while male students are made to feel like criminals for making a joke or chatting a girl up. All students are infantilised as NUS officials and university managers step in to monitor their behaviour.

The killjoy researchers are horrified to see two fifths of the survey’s respondents agree that to ‘some extent’ fancy dress parties at university can encourage sexist behaviour. Of course they do. Indeed, as anyone who has ever been young knows, that’s actually the point of such events. If they didn’t encourage sexist behaviour they’d be no different from infant school birthday parties.

Such infantilisation stops students, especially women, becoming mature adults.

Over half the respondents to the survey believe women students are more vulnerable than men students. Actually, they are not. All major crime statistics show young men are far more likely to be victims of crime than women. That women are made to feel this way is entirely down to the kind of views perpetrated in the reporting of the Lad Culture and Sexism survey. Ultimately, all  students are taught to monitor each other’s behaviour and, instead of talking to each other like adults, to report to ‘someone in authority’ the first sign of a transgression.

The Lad Culture and Sexism Survey tells us that ‘just 40 per cent of students were aware of their university or student union having a code of conduct prohibiting overtly sexual conversations’. That universities have such codes is the truly shocking fact here. Are we really to believe that young adults cannot have a conversation about sex in private? If nothing else this must contravene other codes of conduct requiring explicit and informed consent before sex can take place. How is such consent to be sought without a conversation taking place? (And yes, my toes are curling with embarrassment at the prospect of such a chat but still, that’s not a reason for actually prohibiting such conversations.)

Toni Pearce, president of the NUS, has said of the survey: ‘These stats show that harassment is rife on campus, but still we keep hearing from universities that there is no fear, no intimidation, no problem – well this new research says otherwise.’

Actually, no it doesn’t. These statistics say nothing whatsoever about rape or serious sexual assault. If anything, such statistics show that despite being controlled, infantilised and corralled through consent classes, students still engage in banter and have fun. Good on them.

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Dr Joanna Williams
Dr Joanna Williams
Joanna Williams is the education editor of Spiked and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.

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