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Dictionary Series: A Comprehensive Guide To Sexual Misconduct Policy

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Something we’ve learned over the last few months is that researching sexual misconduct policies can be really confusing. Where do you start? How do you find the policies and how do you make sense of them, when they can vary so much uni to uni? And what even is sexual misconduct?

We’ve tried to break this all down, for our own understanding and for yours. This post is a compilation of a Dictionary Series. Launched in January this year, it's an effort to make the world of university rules and regulations more comprehensible, so that if you need to consult a policy at your own uni, things will be a bit clearer.

If there’s anything we’ve missed and you want us to include in our Dictionary Series, then get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.


We are students and recent graduates, not legal professionals. The below information is a guide only and summarised to the best of our ability. If you require legal advice, please consult a professional.

UUK/ The Pinsent Masons Guidelines:

UUK is the UK’s advisory body for universities. They make recommendations as to how universities should run. In 2016, after publishing its ‘Changing the Culture’ report into sexual misconduct on campuses, it partnered with law firm Pinsent Masons to produce new guidelines as to how universities should define and deal with sexual misconduct.

The so-called Pinsent Masons guidelines are not compulsory. Some universities have chosen to integrate them into their policies and some have not. We recommend that all UK universities adopt these guidelines, so there is a clear understanding of what does and does not constitute sexual violence.

The guidelines state that sexual misconduct may be one or more forms of the following:

  • Sexual intercourse or engaging in a sexual act without consent

  • Attempting to engage in sexual intercourse or engaging in a sexual act without consent

  • Sharing private sexual materials of another person without consent

  • Kissing without consent

  • Touching inappropriately through clothes without consent

  • Inappropriately showing sexual organs to another person

  • Repeatedly following another person without good reason

  • Making unwanted remarks of a sexual nature

Recommended sanctions for sexual misconduct:

  • Expulsion

  • Suspension/Exclusion

  • Restrictions/Conditions

  • Formal Warning

  • Compulsory attendance at a workshop/ coaching session

  • Written Apology


What is the difference between reporting and lodging a complaint?

By the end of December, we had researched 36 unis and found that only 9 have dedicated sexual misconduct policies. We have realised that terms such as “disclosing,” “reporting” and “making a formal complaint” are not interchangeable, and we want to make a more considered effort to distinguish between them.

Generally speaking, disclosure is informally raising the issue with the university and can often be done anonymously online. For online disclosures, universities often call them reports. Making a disclosure is not necessarily the same as making a report or formal complaint. Making a formal complaint may trigger a university investigation and disciplinary panel into the case.

It isn’t always that clear cut. At Exeter, they define ‘disclosure’ using the word itself, which is very unclear. Nottingham’s policy doesn’t define these words at all.

Confused? Us too. This information is for unis with specific sexual misconduct policies. For those that don’t have these policies, it’s even harder to figure out how to report your experiences. Universities need to clearly tell their students what these different terms mean, but also offer individual advice as to what will be in the best interests of each student.


Sexual misconduct policies for Bristol, Cambridge, De Montfort, Durham, Exeter, Manchester Met, Nottingham, UCL, Warwick.

Independent Sexual Violence Advisor - ISVA

ISVAs are specially trained to work with survivors of sexual violence, and are employed by some universities to help their students and staff.

The following definition is taken from the government website and gives a good overview of what ISVAs do:

  • Tailored support to the individual needs of the victim or survivor.

  • Provide accurate and impartial information to victims and survivors of sexual violence.

  • Provide emotional and practical support to meet the needs of the victim or survivor.

Why is an ISVA important?

  • They are specialists, who know exactly how to help survivors of sexual violence.

  • They are much better placed to do so than ordinary counsellors.

  • They can signpost survivors to relevant support services, such as SARCS (Sexual Assault Referral Centres).

  • They further demonstrate the university’s dedication to helping survivors by further addressing the issue of sexual misconduct.


What is a Sexual Assault Referral Centre?

SARCs offer free and confidential support to survivors of sexual violence. They can advise you on reporting your experience to the Police, refer you to sexual health services and may help you to access legal support. If you visit a Centre within a few hours of the attack taking place, they also have specialists who can perform a medical examination. SARCs are in most large towns or cities and most are open to anyone, regardless of your gender or sexuality. Help is available, whether your experience was recent or a long time ago. Some universities include information about their local SARC on their website or in their policies.


What is consent?

In order to obtain consent, one must agree by CHOICE freely and have the FREEDOM and CAPACITY to make that choice. This means that it is only up to the individual to decide whether they want to engage in sexual activity and they must want to engage in this activity. It is a personal choice which must not be impacted by power imbalances (e.g. financial control, age…). On top of this, in terms of capacity, to be able to give consent, one must be physically and/or mentally capable of making that decision. Their physical and mental capacity can be impacted by drug or alcohol use, learning difficulties and previous traumas.”

To read the full article, check out our previous post here.

What is the difference between policies and procedures:

Here are some general definitions:

Policies - guidelines for how an organisation and its individuals should behave

Procedures - actions for what to do if someone has violated the policy

For example, a university’s sexual misconduct may give examples of misconduct, such as kissing without consent or engaging in a sexual act without consent.

As a student or staff member is found to have committed one of these acts, they may have breached that policy. This could lead to a disciplinary procedure. The outcomes of this procedure may include a written apology or expulsion, depending on the severity of the act (see the Pinsent Masons guidelines for further examples of sexual misconduct and relevant sanctions).

How to know whether or not policies are truly effective:

Talk to the survivors who have used them. We understand this might not always be possible, as experiences of sexual violence are hard to discuss. Going through university procedures means that survivors have to recount their experiences to strangers, which can be retraumatising. We think universities should give survivors the opportunity to anonymously submit feedback about how their case was dealt with, but make this optional. Universities should also conduct surveys amongst their students to gage how frequent sexual violence is at their institution and whether students are aware of what help is available.

What is the Office for Students?

This is England’s independent regulator for Higher Education, a subsection of the Department for Education. It wants Higher Education to be value for money, accessible to students of all backgrounds, of a high quality and useful for employability. It also gives advice to both students and education providers.


What is the National Union of Students?

It defends students’ rights and interests, with 95% of university Students Unions affiliated with NUS. It runs a series of student-centered campaigns, aiming to make education more democratic and inclusive. Campaigns include #ClosingTheGap for Black attainment and #StudentSafetyNet for COVID.


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