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Investigation reveals “unacceptable” levels of sexual harassment across University of Oxford

CW: Sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, victim-blaming, rape culture

A five-month long Cherwell investigation indicates that there have been a minimum total of 93 complaints of sexual harassment across the University of Oxford since the beginning of the 2017/18 academic year. 

The investigation exclusively reveals data and information on formal complaints of sexual harassment from each Oxford college.The data reflects the number of allegations or complaints made between the beginning of the 2017/18 academic year and the date at which Cherwell received a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) response from each college respectively. The dates of these responses range from early January 2022 to early May 2022.

The central University administration recorded a total of 28 sexual harassment complaints between the beginning of the 2017/18 academic year and 2nd February 2022. There may have been duplication between college and central administration figures. 

This investigation did not account for sexual assault, unless stated otherwise by colleges. Sexual harassment can consist of “inappropriate body language”, “sexually explicit remarks or innuendoes”, and/or “unwanted sexual advances and touching”, according to the University’s harassment policy. 

The actual total figure of reports across the University and its colleges is likely to be higher than 93, as various colleges withheld data and information in the interest of protecting the privacy of individual students. In addition, many students who have suffered sexual harassment may not have made formal complaints to colleges. Students are able to seek support through college welfare programs without submitting a formal complaint. 

Further, a 2021 investigation by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 19-24 have been sexually harassed, with only 4% of women reporting incidents of sexual harassment. The remaining 96% were dubious about the ability of UK authorities to handle such incidents. 45% of women who would not report sexual harassment say that this is due to the belief that nothing would change. 

It Happens Here, an Oxford SU campaign group against sexual violence, told Cherwell that these numbers only show “the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how prevalent sexual assault is at this university”. 

They added: “Even though we strongly believe that the number of cases at the university is higher than 93, this ‘lower’ number is still unacceptable. These 93 incidents should not have happened in the first place. No survivor should have had to go through such trauma. This demonstrates the work that still needs to be done by all members of the university, including It Happens Here, to end the prevalence of sexual assault.” 

A University spokesperson said that they are “aware that incidents of sexual harassment and violence are under-reported at Oxford” and recognised that they have “more to do”. They also told Cherwell that they take “any allegation of sexual misconduct extremely seriously”. 

Magdalen College recorded the highest number of sexual harassment complaints of any college that provided data, totalling 14 over the last five years. Worcester College and Lincoln College recorded the second highest number of sexual harassment complaints with a total of nine each. 

Among the colleges not to have recorded any complaints of sexual harassment in the given time frame are Jesus and St Catherine’s. Some graduate colleges, such as Kellogg and St Cross, also did not record any complaints of sexual harassment in this period of time. 

It Happens Here highlighted that the differences in reported incidents between colleges may be attributed to the differing cultures or procedures at different colleges. 

They told Cherwell: “For example, colleges that mandate effective consent training for their students may foster a culture where people feel more confident identifying and correcting problematic behaviour in themselves and others. Nevertheless, the main and probably most influential factor is reporting. A survivor may fear backlash from the perpetrator. They may be discouraged by rape myths, such as the idea that survivors must respond in a certain way to be legitimate or that men cannot be assaulted. There may be confusion and apprehension due to a lack of transparency around the reporting process or distrust of the college due to knowledge of previously mishandled cases.”

As the practice of universities using ‘gagging clauses’ in cases of sexual harassment has recently come under fire nationwide, some colleges withheld all data on sexual harassment in their FoI responses, citing a risk of compromising “confidentiality obligations”. Colleges also stated that public release of information in some cases could lead to the identification of individuals. 

One of the eight colleges to have withheld information was Lady Margaret Hall, which was accused of having “silenced and mistreated a victim of rape” according to a recent article by The Times.

St Benet’s Hall did not provide any information as the Permanent Private Hall is not a public authority and is “hence not obliged to respond to FoI requests such as these”. 

The reason which University College gave for not providing the specific data requested was that it did not collect data solely on ‘sexual harassment’ between the 2017/18 academic year and 2021. Instead, its records show more general data for ‘harassment’ rather than for specific types of harassment. The College recorded 20 complaints of ‘harassment’ since the beginning of 2017/18 year. 

A spokesperson said that the University of Oxford was “working hard in recent years on building a culture where our students can feel safe and where sexual violence and harassment will not be tolerated”.  

The University spokesperson stated: “We would like to reassure students that anyone bringing forward complaints of this nature will always be listened to and supported, and would urge any student who has experienced sexual harassment and violence to contact the Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service.”

Cherwell’s FoI requests also asked for data on what action colleges took and what welfare support was provided. Fewer than five of Magdalen’s total of 14 cases led to a formal investigation by a College Disciplinary Panel. Some cases led to formal expulsion or termination of contract. 

Discipline for perpetrators of sexual harassment differed greatly across the University. At colleges such as Corpus Christi, University, Regent’s Park, Magdalen, and St Peter’s, students and staff members investigated for incidents of sexual harassment were suspended or banned from college premises for a period of time. In other instances, students were asked to undertake community service, and in some cases students or staff members were ultimately removed from the University. 

Mansfield, Lincoln, and Linacre noted that some cases involved students from another college, in which case they were unable to take disciplinary action themselves. In these cases, University Proctors intervened. Various colleges chose not to disclose information on investigations or discipline.

An investigation was led “by an external party” in each New College case of student-on-student sexual harassment. In most other cases, a Dean or other appropriate College Officer would oversee the investigation. 

In Michaelmas Term 2019, the University introduced the No Contact Arrangement Policy. The No Contact Arrangement Policy limits contact between students while allowing academic studies to continue. The University states that the policy was brought in to “address misconduct by students, rather than to resolve disputes between individuals”. 

A University spokesperson also told Cherwell that they appointed a “specialist investigator for disciplinary sexual misconduct cases”. The University spokesperson added that each case is handled sensitively by specialist investigators. 

In 2017, an investigation into sexual harassment by The Guardian saw Oxford record the highest number of allegations of staff-on-student sexual harassment out of 120 different universities between the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year and 2012, with eleven received by the central University and ten by colleges. There may have been duplication between college and central administration figures.

Cherwell can newly reveal that, since the beginning of the academic year 2017/18, the total number of allegations of staff-on-student sexual harassment across Oxford’s colleges is eight, while the central University administration recorded five cases. While these figures show a reduction from the period in which The Guardian investigated, the total figure is likely to be higher as some data was not disclosed. 

Trinity College received one “historical” complaint of staff-on-student sexual harassment in the last five years. However, no action was taken against the alleged perpetrator as they “died several decades ago”.

The University told Cherwell that they are currently reviewing the University’s staff-student policy. Student-staff relationships are not banned outright across the University. The University-wide policy states that “any close personal or intimate relationship with a student for whom a staff member has any responsibility is brought to the attention of the member of staff’s Head of Department as soon as such a relationship commences”. 

Several colleges do not have any student-staff relationship policy, such as New College, The Queen’s College, and Merton. Other colleges, such as Jesus and Balliol, strongly advise against close and intimate relationships between staff and students. 

Some colleges take strong actions against student-staff relationships. Linacre, a graduate college, explicitly “prohibits such staff from engaging in romantic or sexual relationships with students for whom they hold any such responsibility”. The policy adds: “Such relationships are always inappropriate irrespective of whether the student did not appear to object, appeared to give consent, gave consent or even instigated the behaviour”. 

Across the colleges, there was a minimum total of eight complaints of staff-on-staff sexual harassment, while the central administration only recorded two. 

All colleges for undergraduates have harassment policies and codes of conduct which contain information on sexual harassment. Some graduate colleges, such as St Cross, follow the University policy, which similarly contains a section on forms of sexual harassment. Welfare resources are also listed. 

In many cases, victims of harassment were referred to the University Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service, which was set up in 2018, as well as Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre. The University’s Support Service provides confidential and independent advice, including how to make a complaint alongside practical support. 

Brasenose College commented that each person who reported an incident of sexual harassment was “responded to in their context– there is no single route of support”. University College stated that “students are reminded about members of college staff from whom they may receive support and about sources of support from outside the College”. 

It Happens Here commented that their Oxford SU campaign “sees that the level and quality of support that is given to students varies substantially between colleges”. They urged all colleges to “critically examine the systems they have in place and question whether it is accessible, trauma-informed and effective at safeguarding vulnerable people”.

An Oxford University spokesperson informed Cherwell that the Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service is seeing an increasing number of students come forward, with 223 students seeking support from the University service in the 2020-21 academic year. They also told Cherwell that they would like to reassure students that anyone bringing complaints forward will be listened to and supported. 

The University stated that they are currently “refreshing our consent training” and “providing more welfare support for students” through the provision of more resources.

A group of University of Oxford students under the name ‘Not Here. Not Anymore’ has recently organised a protest on 22nd May at the Radcliffe Camera to address the “University’s abhorrent treatment of victims of sexual harassment and fighting for new protective procedures”.

A spokesperson for the group told Cherwell: “This protest is about showing solidarity with all victims of sexual assualt and harassment across the university. We are demanding that the University does better rather than silencing victims and protecting sexual assaulters over the victims themselves. The protest is also a way to make some noise because something has to be done, and each moment this university delays the conversation another student is left vulnerable to sexual assault or sexual harassment.”

It Happens Here concluded: “These statistics are only the beginning of the story. Although we cannot claim to know the reasons behind these numbers, we can see that the real extent and impact of sexual assault at Oxford University is far beyond the scope of these statistics. We can say that we have seen survivors who found support immediately and survivors who have been afraid to disclose for years, survivors who have reported to the police and survivors who have not even told their friends, survivors whose experiences disrupted their studies and careers, and survivors of all genders, backgrounds and colleges. Every case is unique but the patterns are startling: people who experience sexual violence are prevented from reporting, are silenced and become invisible. From rape culture and victim-blaming to spiking to silencing survivors with NDAs, it happens here and it does not end here: the patterns we create and tolerate at university then reproduce and are tolerated in the homes and workplaces that we leave to. This is why it is important to make a stand now.”

An Oxford University spokesperson provided Cherwell with a full statement: “Oxford University has been working hard in recent years on building a culture where our students can feel safe and where sexual violence and harassment will not be tolerated.” 

“We know we have more to do, and are currently refreshing our consent training, reviewing the University’s policy on staff-student relationships, and providing more welfare support for students.”

“The University takes any allegation of sexual misconduct extremely seriously, but in line with the national picture, we are aware that incidents of sexual harassment and violence are under-reported at Oxford. We would like to reassure students that anyone bringing forward complaints of this nature will always be listened to and supported, and would urge any student who has experienced sexual harassment and violence to contact the Support Service.”

You can see the full set of data collected here

Photography by Wang Sum Luk.

A special mention must be attributed to Cherwell’s co-Editor in Chief Estelle Atkinson and Deputy Editor Leah Mitchell in the making of this article. 

University of Oxford 

Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service

Oxford against Sexual Violence campaign for students. 

Oxford University Counselling Service – 

[email protected]   01865 270300

Oxfordshire and United Kingdom 

The Samaritans (open 24/7)   [email protected]   116123

Revenge Porn Helpline 

It Happens Here:

Join us at It Happens Here if you need support or want to learn more about what you can do to help the cause.

We run weekly wellbeing sessions for survivors and their allies (Safe Spaces project), which you can sign up for here

 If you have been affected by any of what has been raised in this article, please consult https://www.ithappenshere.co.uk/ where you can find a list of resources, ranging all the way from college level based support to national support services. We also have a short quiz you can take to signpost you to the most useful support service.

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