Sexual harassment is widespread and affects the lives of women and girls, in particular, every day. In the face of calls to tackle sexual harassment and violence, the UK government committed to carry out a review to see if misogyny should be treated as a hate crime. This review is a welcome and important step, but studies we conducted at UK universities indicate that the law alone won’t be enough to tackle sexual harassment.
As researchers looking into higher education, we know that sexual harassment and violence are widespread in universities – they’re a core part of what’s known as “lad culture”. The National Union of Students (NUS) has conducted several studies about students’ experiences, and found that two-thirds of women students have experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment; one in seven women students has experienced serious physical or sexual assault; and 37% of women and 12% of men students have experienced unwanted sexual advances.
This trend is not specific to the UK: a recent survey of all 39 universities in Australia, for example, revealed that 51% of university students were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, with higher rates among some groups including women students, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse students and disabled students.
A pervasive problem
Our research, published in 2018, suggests that despite evidence of pervasive sexism, harassment and sexual violence in universities, the extent of these behaviours is not usually recognised by staff. We interviewed 72 staff across six universities in England, including senior managers such as pro-vice chancellors, student union officers, lecturers, welfare tutors and security staff.
Our analyses showed that most staff underestimate the pervasiveness of lad culture. This is illustrated by Alex, a student union officer, who said:
"We don’t notice it, so I think it’s quite accepted. Because when I was first thinking about lad culture at this university I thought ‘oh well there isn’t really’ and then I realised actually there is and there’s quite a lot of it."
Staff who had become conscious of the widespread nature of lad culture, often student union staff, conveyed the ways in which sexism, harassment and sexual violence are so common in university contexts that they are normalised and unremarkable – part of “the wallpaper of sexism”.
And because it is so normal, students rarely report it – as Abby, a student union officer, told us:
"I’ve definitely been touched when I’ve said ‘don’t touch me’, I’ve definitely had my skirt pulled up, I’ve definitely had people like kiss me when I’ve said ‘get away from me’, and they’ll just take your face and they’ll just kiss you. There’s not a lot you can do about it but I’d never ever think to report it … it’s like what would you say to report, ‘cos I could give you 20 reports from one night out."
Ways of tackling sexual harassment that rely on reporting - like the hate crime legislation – are unlikely to be effective if sexual harassment is so frequent that reporting it seems unimaginable.
In our study, only some of the more extreme instances were noticed by staff. This meant they only saw the tip of the iceberg, and so underestimated its prevalence. Ella, a lecturer and programme leader, said:
"By the time the issues come to me, then I’d say [laddism] is fairly infrequent but I can imagine that if I investigate it I’d probably find that it’s a lot more frequent than it appears … Normally by the time it comes to my door it can be pretty serious."
The law is not enough
When institutions underestimate the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and violence, it has an impact on how it’s understood, explained and addressed. If only extreme cases are recognised, it can mean that it’s seen as a personal problem – the perpetrators are cast as “a few bad apples”, while institutional cultures are left unexamined, and unchallenged.
It also means that institutions respond using disciplinary processes that focus on individual punishment, and rely on individuals to report their experiences – much like the proposed hate crime legislation. Such mechanisms are important, but they’re not enough. For example, we know that there are many cultural barriers, such as shame and fear of not being believed, that prevent survivors from reporting.
Until we move beyond seeing sexual harassment and violence as being committed by a “few bad apples” we will fail to understand the causes, and address them properly. These acts are not typically committed by “sex pests” or “monsters”. These behaviours reflect a wider culture in which sexual harassment and violence become normal, and are trivialised to such a point that they become unremarkable.
We need to challenge this culture and address the structural and systemic gender inequality that underpins it, rather than respond only to individual incidents as they occur, as the proposed hate crime law would do.
Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of respondents.