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The Advertisement of Support: Obstacles to Reporting Sexual Assault

TW: sexual assault/violence

After learning that 70% of female students and recent graduates have experienced sexual violence (of which 48% had experienced sexual assault), I began to question my own university experiences. I wondered that, if I were to be sexually harassed or assaulted at my current university, Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), would I know who to report it to or where to turn? The answer was no. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I prematurely assumed that the majority of my friends at QMUL, and other universities across the country, probably felt the same.

So, I put my theory to an Instagram poll.

I asked current QMUL students and recent graduates the following question: ‘If you were to need to report an incident of sexual harassment/assault, would you know how to report it at our university?’. Of the 40 people that took part, 88% voted ‘no’; the majority would not know how to report it. I was not particularly surprised at this statistic and thought it best to do some research to see what resources and procedures were actually in place. A quick Google search led me to a page called ‘Report + Support’. Created in 2019, it provides students with the ability to report ‘bullying and harassment, hate incidents or gender-based violence’, both anonymously or by giving your contact details. As a final-year QMUL student, I have never heard of this page before actively searching for it and firmly believed that none of my friends and colleagues had either. Again, I put my theory to test via an Instagram poll. I posed the following question: ‘Are you aware of QMUL’s ‘Report + Support’ page?’. In this poll, quite unsurprisingly, 92% of students voted ‘no’ they had not heard of it. It is undoubtedly positive that universities have pages like these providing the means to ‘report’ sexual assault and ‘support’ those that have been affected, but if the students are unaware of these facilities, then what is the point?

Once again, I created another Instagram poll. This time, I asked ‘Do you think QMUL does a good job at making students aware of the procedure to report sexual assault/harassment?’. 96% voted ‘no’. In fact, I was actually surprised that 4% voted ‘yes’. I began to wonder if this was just a problem at my university, or did all universities fail to make students aware of the resources in place to report sexual harassment? I decided to ask a few friends attending other universities similar questions to discover if this was a systemic issue in all Higher Education institutions. I started by asking one female student at Oxford Brookes if she were to need to report an incident of sexual assault, would she know where to go? Her answer was “absolutely not”, she wouldn’t know where to go, but also stated that thankfully she had never had to actively search for the reporting procedures. However, she also stressed that she had never seen any clear instructions as to how someone would. Upon googling ‘Oxford Brookes sexual assault reporting’, I came across a page also titled ‘Report and Support’, again with the ability to report incidents either anonymously or by providing contact details. I returned to my friend and asked her if she was aware of this page, to which she unsurprisingly stated: “I’ve never heard of it”. I asked a few other friends of mine that were either students at, or had recently graduated from universities in Kent, Surrey and Brighton if they were aware of any sexual assault reporting pages or resources, to which they all replied ‘no’. Once again, after a simple Google search, I found there was a plethora of online resources from all of these universities.

If this is the case, then what is the problem here and what needs to be done?

Giving no focus to the quality or effectiveness of resources given by universities, the issue here does not lie with the actual measures in place for reporting sexual misconduct. Instead, the issue lies with the advertisement and information sharing (or lack of) said resources. I also realise that Instagram polls directed at a small number of university students from one university may not be a reflection of the wider consensus on support facilities at universities across the country. But that being said, they may indicate a general lack of knowledge about these important resources. Moreover, there are still steps that universities, and all education institutions, can take to improve this. Report and Support facilities at universities need to be advertised from the day students start university. This means that freshers fairs, class introductions, and halls of residence move-in days should all display and introduce students to the protocol the university has in place for sexual assault disclosure. This could take the form of posters, online guidance on how to access and navigate the website, printing the link on wristbands, or sending emails to students providing a step-by-step guide on how to report harassment.

One area of university life that I know definitely requires more publicity for these resources is nightlife. Student Union bars and halls of residence are places where large groups of students socialise on-campus and often consume large quantities of alcohol. From speaking to friends and conducting research for this campaign I know that this may lead to assault, as students take advantage of others. A 2016 study by Drinkaware found that ‘54% of 18 to 24-year-old female students experienced sexual harassment on nights out. Out of these women, half said that this is experienced most or every time they go out’. In a separate 2010 survey, ‘68% of respondents had been subject to verbal or physical sexual harassment on campus and 14% had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault’. For this reason, security in these environments need to be particularly vigilant to these kinds of occurrences. This means that all staff (including bar, management and security teams) must provide guidance, information and support on how to access the university’s official reporting facilities. Guidance of this sort is required around the clock, not just when events take place. Once again, this could be in the form of posters (these often work well in the toilets of bars), notices and electronic adverts or billboards that make students aware of the facilities in place for both anonymous and named reporting. I am also familiar with the phenomenal Ask for Angela scheme in which customers at venues across the country can ask a member of staff for ‘Angela’ if they feel unsafe or threatened. But, stating that it is a London based scheme, I have to wonder if all universities use this, and if it goes far enough to properly report incidents and provide follow-up care. Without even considering the rates of assault in these environments, and often universities’ inaction in response to these, the advertisement of resources combatting sexual assault is clearly lacking in all aspects of university life.

Throughout the pandemic, students have been frequently inundated with emails and information on COVID-19. This correspondence has included university case rates and guidance for students and staff if they become ill. Universities clearly have the ability to spread important information quickly, on a regular basis, so why can’t they do the same for sexual assault protocol? Ultimately, I am asking that all universities make students aware of where and how to access Report and Support facilities should they need it, so as not to leave students feeling like they do not know who or where to turn to. But, this is not just a call to universities and staff, but also to friends, peers and colleagues to share information wherever possible. Students must share the link for their university’s report page in course or sports team group chats, or ask their friends if they know of it, and if not make them aware. Sharing advice and material amongst friend groups is crucial, particularly amongst close friends, as students are more likely to trust and actually use the available resources in these instances.

Without action, students will continue to not report sexual assault and harassment, and get the justice they deserve, as ultimately they do not know how to do so.

If you have been affected by this, you can seek help and support through the links below:

Rape Crisis:

UK Government Website:

Victim Support:

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