A survey by the ongoing project ‘OUR SPACE’, which seeks to investigate Oxford students’ experiences of sexual harassment and violence, finds that 50% of students have experienced sexual harassment and 18% have experienced sexual violence while at the university.
The project, launched in February 2021, argues that “sexual violence among higher education students is a public health issue”. Receiving university funding, it collaborates with the University and the SU in response to the increasing scrutiny.
Seeking to combat the “dearth of rigorous research assessing the prevalence of sexual violence among higher education students in the UK”, the survey’s findings provide qualitative evidence for what has long been known in ‘whisper networks’. This, it claims, is “essential for designing and resourcing responses, including monitoring the effectiveness of existing prevention initiatives.”
The survey’s findings highlight that sexual violence disproportionately impacts women, consistent with claims about the persistence of a ‘rape-culture’ at higher education institutions.
The systemic issues surrounding underreporting are reflected in the survey’s responses. Among the study’s respondents, only 1% who reported experiencing sexual violence and 12% who reported experiencing sexual harassment had made formal reports.
The findings come in the aftermath of legal allegations surrounding the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), used to gag victims, both at Oxford and other Higher Educational Institutions, as well as reports testifying to hostile responses to sexual assault complaints.
In an amended statement, the university claims that “The University of Oxford does not and will not use Non-Disclosure Agreements to prevent the investigation of complaints of sexual misconduct or other inappropriate behaviour, or to prevent responsible whistleblowing”. However, this does not reflect the particularity of Oxford’s collegiate system, where only 3 of Oxford’s legally autonomous colleges have pledged to stop using NDAs for complaints about sexual harassment.
Universities UK acknowledges that universities have been “too slow to address this issue”. It warns vice-chancellors against using NDAs, also advising universities to “strongly discourage” sexual relationships between staff and students. Oxford university does not outright ban these relationships, only requiring that it is brought to the attention of the member of staff’s Head of Department.
Entering its next phase, the project is seeking to recruit students to engage in qualitative interviews, to better understand Oxford students’ experiences. In gathering such date, they seek to shape university policy and responses to reports sexual harassment and violence.