Tackling sexual harassment and violence in universities: seven lessons from the UK

This is the text of an online keynote I gave, hosted by the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and the Freie Universität Berlin, on February 5th 2021. It was the last in a series of sessions on sexual harassment and violence in universities; when I was invited to speak, I was honoured but also concerned about what I could offer as a UK-based academic whose work on sexual violence has been focused on universities in my home country. My work started in 2006 with a pilot study at my own institution, and since then I have been involved in a number of research and intervention projects, collectives and campaigns. I thought it would be useful if I tried to distil what I have learned over the past fifteen years for fellow scholars, activists and organisers in other contexts and countries. So here are seven lessons from the UK: I hope some of them will resonate and perhaps help others avoid the mistakes I have made. In fifteen years my work has been characterised more by failure than success: but along the way I have at least learned to fail better.

My first lesson is: name the problem.

Sara Ahmed has written: ‘When we put a name to a problem, we are doing something.’ This doing, in her words, is ‘gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing.’ This gathering up, this making tangible, can allow the thing to be addressed. As James Baldwin famously said: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ It was the UK student movement that made us face the issue of sexual harassment and violence in our universities: in the early 2010s, some amazing young feminists persistently named and worked to address it. I want to acknowledge, amongst others, Kelley Temple, Susuana Amoah and Hareem Ghani, who were all Women’s Officers of the National Union of Students (NUS).

The first national study of sexual harassment and violence against students was published by NUS in 2010. Called Hidden Marks, this was a survey of over two thousand self-identified women students across all four UK nations. One in seven had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault; 68 per cent had been sexually harassed. I worked with NUS on the research, and shortly after the report’s release they commissioned me, with Isabel Young, to research ‘lad culture’ in universities and how that framed sexual harassment and violence.

Isabel and I recruited forty women studying in England and Scotland, for focus groups and interviews. Our participants were very clear on what ‘lad culture’ was: a group dynamic enacted by young men in team sports and on the social scene, characterised by misogynist and homophobic ‘banter’. This ‘banter’ often involved rape jokes and sexual harassment and had the potential to escalate into more extreme forms of sexual violence. Our report, entitled That’s What She Said, theorised ‘lad culture’ as a conducive context for sexual violence. It was launched on International Women’s Day 2013.

That’s What She Said entered a climate in which women were ready to snap. For Ahmed, ‘feminist snap’ occurs when our experiences of negotiating worlds that demean and exclude us become overwhelming. The report prompted an outpouring – in feminist groups, students’ unions, classrooms, faculty offices and on social media – from women who had had enough. And as Ahmed says, moments of ‘snap’ can be catalysts for change. In the movement that emerged around ‘lad culture’ we raised awareness, created training, and developed partnerships with local support services. We used the media to ‘name and shame’ perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them. We lobbied university leaders for a better response. By 2015, this had prompted the formation of a task force by Universities UK (the body that represents UK university leaders) on violence against women, harassment and hate crime.

The taskforce report, released a year later, recommended that all institutions adopt centralised reporting procedures, develop effective disclosure responses, and run training programmes. Afterwards, the Higher Education Funding Council for England made £4.7 million pounds available for projects addressing sexual harassment and hate crime on campus, which supported institutional initiatives across the country. There was also further data-gathering: in 2018, NUS and the 1752 group (the UK’s first lobby group on staff-student sexual misconduct) conducted a study with almost two thousand current and former students, and found that 40 per cent had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from university staff.

In 2019, three years after the taskforce report, Universities UK circulated the results of a progress review of 95 institutions across all four UK nations. It found that 87 per cent had a working group on sexual harassment, violence and/or hate crime and 76 per cent had secured senior leadership buy-in. 81 per cent had delivered training, and 78 per cent had developed or improved reporting mechanisms. Crucially, it found there had been an increase in reported incidents and ‘a profound change in the initiatives and ideas that are now available for sharing across the sector’. It concluded that ‘over time, this will help facilitate cultural change at both institutional and sector level’.

The activist movement against ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in UK universities had succeeded in naming the problem and getting institutions to face it. Yet despite this huge achievement, I was circumspect. Institutional actions had mainly consisted of policy compliance and getting rid of ‘bad apples’ using disciplinary procedures. The movement, despite the input of a number of women of colour, was dominated by fellow white women who seemed happy to accept or even encourage this approach. But sexual harassment and violence are not a disease infecting particular ‘bad apples’ – they sit deep within the tangle of roots that nourishes the whole rotten tree.

This leads me to my second lesson: don’t individualise the issue.

Sexual violence is about systems. To understand it we have to think big: I theorise it as a pivot for heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and its colonial extensions. It works at the level of the nation, the state, the community and the household; it allows for the extraction of socially reproductive and hyper-exploited productive labour; it facilitates the expropriation of land and resources. It enters the world via four vectors – threats, acts, allegations, and punishment – and these must be considered together if we are to understand why sexual violence occurs and how to stop it.

Acts and threats of sexual violence impose bourgeois binary gender and facilitate the free and low-cost social reproduction capitalism depends on. They keep women in our place and enable men’s domestic power over us. They punish people who do not conform to dominant gender and sexual norms. They support historical and ongoing colonial systems in which economic and caring labour is extracted from Black and other racialised communities for little or no reward. Rape has been used to terrorise and subjugate colonised, displaced and dispossessed populations in war, occupation, settlement, enslavement and theft (including their neo-colonial forms).

Allegations and punishment of sexual violence have achieved the same ends. Black and other racialised and colonised men have been brutalised and killed following accusations made by white women. Sexual violence is used as a political device to construct populations, cultures and nations as dangerous, to justify border regimes and military-industrial projects. The spectre of sexual danger can be deployed to demonise and deport migrants, and to funnel racialised and classed populations into the criminal punishment system. It can also be brandished to construct queer and trans people as a threat.

Sexual violence in the university performs all these functions, at a smaller scale. Sexual harassment and assault are used to demean and dominate, to make students and staff (usually women) unwelcome, to keep us under control, and to express and maintain supremacy. In UK student communities, there is evidence that ‘lad culture’ and its attendant sexual violence is the preserve of middle- and upper-class white men who see successful young women as a threat. Sexual harassment of students by staff usually involves senior male academics (the majority of whom are white) expressing their entitlement and abusing their power. As well as women, gender-nonconforming students are at high risk of violence, and being marginalised by race, class and/or disability creates additional vulnerabilities.

Acts and threats of sexual violence reserve and shape the space of the university for privileged white men (and some white women, too). They articulate and preserve the power relations of the institution and the wider world. And in universities, as in the wider world, certain groups are constructed as more sexually violent than others. There is anecdotal evidence that queer academics, especially those who are also Black, are more likely to be accused of sexual misconduct. A recent report described how anti-radicalisation agendas in UK higher education construct Muslim men as particularly misogynistic. The institution is not neutral when it comes to addressing sexual violence.

My third lesson is: know the institution.

As with sexual violence, when considering the institution, it is necessary to think big. I draw on abolitionist university studies, which understands education as key to the capitalist, colonial, modern world-making project. Eli Meyerhoff theorises education as a mode of primitive accumulation, which creates the preconditions for racial capitalism through hoarding the means of study and using them to credentialise us for stratified economic roles. It inculcates us into ways of knowing and learning that reflect capitalist norms and practices: separate public and private spheres, the rational and consuming individual, and colonial dichotomies between culture and nature, modernity and tradition, value and waste. We become ‘competent’ in the knowledges of the state and status quo, and other forms of world-making are cast as deprived and less evolved.

Higher education has shaped nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, democracy and ‘civilisation’. Anthropology, economics, demography, sociology, psychology and criminology have rationalised exclusion and exploitation. UK universities are deeply embedded in state capitalist violence, including post-9/11 counter-terrorism regimes through which academics become border guards. They are also places where student protest is violently repressed. As economic actors themselves, universities are central to flows of dispossession and accumulation. They have been built upon indigenous and/or enclosed common lands and enriched by transatlantic slavery. They are now entrenched in the neoliberal rationalities and practices of privatisation, outsourcing, downsizing and precarity, and are subject to, and have, complex financial interests (including in the military-industrial complex).

During COVID-19 in England, the moral bankruptcy of our higher education system was starkly exposed. Our increasingly privatised universities lured students to campuses with promises of ‘Covid-safe’ teaching, to collect fees and rents. Students were blamed and punished as the virus inevitably spread, then told they could not return home and trapped in infection hotspots by fences and cops. There was horror and condemnation of university leaders as this situation progressed. People who perhaps did not know before, realised exactly what the institution is. But this institution is what white feminists have looked to, to protect us from sexual violence. How can the institution protect us from violence, when the institution is violence? The university cannot not save us – it is what Audre Lorde would call the master’s house.

So, my fourth lesson is: put down the master’s tools.

Activists against sexual violence in UK universities have mostly made gains in policy. In response to our lobbying, institutions have made written commitments, amended discipline processes, revised reporting procedures and commissioned training. We have worked hard for these successes and have done well to achieve them. But policy machinery constructs the institution as benign and able to be worked on, concealing the violence built into its very existence. Contemporary UK policy work also tends to be undertaken within neoliberal systems of measurement, monitoring and audit that generate surplus value for the university. This creates an emphasis on maintaining the appearance of a functional institution, not worrying about the reality.

This is what Ahmed terms ‘institutional polishing’ – initiatives ostensibly about equality, that are actually about little more than generating a marketable image. These initiatives are what she calls ‘non-performative’ – they do not produce the effects they name but substitute for them instead. A non-performative is seen as doing something, when in fact it allows institutions not to do anything else. A report produced in response to an issue, which is then used to declare that the issue has been addressed. A policy which is created and publicised, but ultimately not followed because just having the policy is what counts. In the UK, it has become important for institutions to look like they are doing something about sexual harassment and violence. But looking like and doing are not necessarily the same thing – in fact, sometimes the first allows us to escape the second. Policy is very often one of the master’s tools.

Institutional polishing can also turn into institutional airbrushing when problems emerge. ‘Naming and shaming’ perpetrators has been another key strategy of the mainstream movement against sexual violence, and it is powerful because it threatens to mar the institution’s polished image. But the key word here is ‘image’ – the impact of the disclosure on the surplus value of the institution is more troubling than the disclosure itself. Communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators. But in universities (which present themselves as communities but are actually corporations), the financial impact of disclosure must also be projected and totted up. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished, so the problem is airbrushed out.

What I call institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: concealment and erasure. Either issues are minimised, denied or hidden and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly, or when this is not possible, the perpetrator is ‘airbrushed’ from the institution and it is made to appear as if they were never there. Confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements are often used, or financial settlements given to perpetrators to convince them to resign. Institutional airbrushing stabilises the system; it communicates and embeds the idea that all the institution needs to do is to remove the ‘bad’ individual. After the blemish is airbrushed out, the malaise that produced it remains. And after the blemish is airbrushed out, it has a tendency to reappear elsewhere. ‘Bad apples’ can always re-attach themselves to a different rotten tree. This is called ‘pass the harasser’ and it is a significant problem in UK higher education.

I am not saying that people who perpetrate sexual violence have a right to keep their jobs. I also know that not excluding a perpetrator from an institution can be a de facto exclusion of survivors. But I am concerned that, like capitalism itself, institutional airbrushing moves problems around rather than addressing them. I am also concerned that ultimately, we may outsource our perpetrators to women in lower-status, lower-paid economic sectors. Although ‘naming and shaming’ can be a form of direct action when other avenues are closed, it more often triggers institutional airbrushing than genuine institutional change. Institutional airbrushing is one of the master’s tools: it does not prioritise the personal interests of survivors but the financial interests of the institution. And when done in the corporate media, ‘naming and shaming’ can also be co-opted in the service of the bottom line.

This brings me to my fifth lesson: don’t mistake outrage for justice.

In the corporate media, trauma is big business. The phrases ‘disaster porn’ and ‘tragedy porn’ have been coined to describe our fascination with the troubles of others, which creates a market for the consumption of pain: photographs of drowned migrants on European beaches, stories of sexual assault in Hollywood, and videos of Black people being brutalised and killed by police. This material, usually fed to us online via ‘clickbait’, gives a quick fix of sympathy and outrage but does not often lead to systemic analysis or radical political action. Instead, it objectifies its subjects to make media outlets money. In the corporate media, holding governments, institutions and individuals to account comes a poor second behind manipulating outrage to generate revenue. This is what I call the ‘outrage economy’ of the contemporary Western media.

Sexual violence stories are capital in this economy, exemplified by the viral iteration of #MeToo. Although it was started by Black feminist Tarana Burke as a survivor-led movement of mutual support, #MeToo went viral following a tweet by white actor Alyssa Milano, as a moment of mass media disclosure. It was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN, CBS and CBC, and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC, in the Times of India, the New York Times and the US National Post.

A key limitation of this mainstream iteration of #MeToo is that media markets, like all markets, are profoundly nihilistic. Clicks, likes and shares are a multi-denominational currency. As long as they accumulate, as long as media companies can make advertising revenue and harvest our data, it does not matter why. In other words, the media using sexual violence as clickbait does not imply support for feminist goals. The media using sexual violence as clickbait does not mean survivors will not themselves be vilified if this happens to be the juicer story.

In my fifteen years in the field, I have become deeply uncomfortable with the key strategies of mainstream sexual violence activism. When institutions let us down, we often ‘invest’ our trauma in networked media markets, to generate outrage and the visibility we need to further our cause. But cynical media corporations exploit this outrage, building visibility for their brands by encouraging audiences to consume our pain. Meanwhile the threat of damage to the brands of exposed institutions and organisations leads to an airbrushing of ‘bad men’ from high-profile sectors. These individuals usually move on to start all over again, while oppressive systems are left intact.

When individual men are ‘named and shamed’ in the media, when institutional policies and initiatives focus on punishing or excluding these ‘bad apples’, there is almost no effect on the whole rotten tree. Indeed, we often end up nourishing its roots – when mainstream feminist activism relies on the patriarchal, racist, capitalist institution for punishment, we use the master’s tools to try to dismantle the master’s house. Like the carceral feminism that calls on the punitive state to put perpetrators away, activism against sexual violence in universities fails to dismantle the intersecting systems that produce sexual violence and strengthens them instead.

Because of this, my sixth lesson is: stop calling the manager.

The punitive tendencies of the mainstream movement against sexual violence are a key part of what I call its political whiteness. Political whiteness involves, among other things, a clear conceptual distinction between victims and perpetrators, an understanding of the state as benign, and a belief that punishment works. White and middle-class feminists have called for more police, more convictions and longer sentences – and when something goes wrong in our workplaces, we ask the manager to sort it out. And when we turn to authority, we legitimate and bolster that authority. In our efforts to address personal abuses of power, we turn to the institutional power that facilitates them. In thinking we can be safe in our institutions by punishing the ‘bad’ men, we conceal the fact that the institution itself is unsafe.

Our demands for discipline can also increase the institution’s power and ability to perpetrate violence. Policies that make it easier to dismiss harassers might chip away at everyone’s employment rights, especially in a post-pandemic context where universities are looking to make substantial cuts. Technologies such as codes of conduct or ‘morality clauses’ in employment contracts, or a ‘sex offenders’ register’ for higher education (which has been suggested by some activists), could be misused to target groups seen as ‘deviant’ or a sexual threat. Such forms of institutional governance are also ultimately designed to protect the university from liability, not to protect us. Law firm Pinsent Masons, which represents UK university administrations as they defend themselves against discrimination claims and has given them advice on breaking strikes, has written the guidance for universities on how to handle alleged claims of sexual misconduct.

There is also a difference between punishment and accountability. Punishment is a passive and impersonal process – the person who has been harmed hands over their power and is kept in the dark (although nevertheless it requires a huge amount of courage and work). Accountability, in contrast, is both personal and active. For Mia Mingus, accountability requires four steps from someone who has caused harm: self-reflection, apology, repair, and changed behaviour. It centres the person who has been harmed, their understanding of why the behaviour was harmful and their definition of what constitutes repair. It makes space for that repair, acknowledging that none of us is above causing harm and we may all need that space someday. It is the job of the perpetrator and not the survivor, and requires significant community input and support.

Accountability, as described by Mingus, would be difficult to achieve in higher education institutions which are corporations rather than communities, in which we are hierarchically organised, individualised, distrustful and overworked. None of this is conducive to honest communication and collective action. True accountability would require a collectivist, not a capitalist, institution – and this is probably an oxymoron. That does not mean, though, that while supporting survivors as best we can within the options currently available, we cannot also try to move in a better direction. In the longer term, we cannot keep calling the manager and relying on the system to do the work of accountability for us, when it is what needs to be dismantled.

This sets up my seventh and final lesson: be in it for the long haul. 

After fifteen years in the field, I heed Lorde’s advice that refusing to use the master’s tools may only be difficult for those who ‘still define the master’s house as their only source of support’. This is an invitation to stop relying on the master to deal with our collective problems, and to join the work of building a different house. A house where we tackle things together means a house founded on care – not the privatised care of the market and heteronormative family, not the bare minimum provided by the institution and state, but more capacious and collective ways of surviving and thriving. Instead of strengthening the status quo, mainstream feminist organising against sexual violence needs to become part of the broader project of making anew. We must think big and act small. What world do we ultimately want to live in? What are some baby steps towards it that we could realistically take?

I am referring here to the abolitionist distinction between reformist and non-reformist reforms. Non-reformist reforms move us towards the world we want, not further away. They shrink, rather than grow, the state and institution’s capacity for violence. To start with, in universities, this could mean creating small, self-organised groups of staff and students who imagine new ways of relating and solving problems together. It could mean using these prototypes to develop policy suggestions and initiatives which create structures of accountability rather than shoring up the institution’s power. It would mean making demands for institutional resources: money most importantly, and the time and space to do this important work. This would be a radical challenge to the current model of the university and to current mainstream feminist activism.

It would also be hard work, and might be bound to fail given what the university is. But all we need to do is move in the right direction. I take hope from recent mass strikes in UK higher education, which showed that neoliberalism has not stolen all our solidarity and community away. I also take hope from the many forms of grassroots care that have proliferated during the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe that we will not know what we can create until we free ourselves from how the institution stifles our imaginations and start doing what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. People marginalised by race, class and disability, queer and trans people, have long been supporting survivors and working towards transformative justice outside the institution and outside the state. There are many amazing examples to emulate. This is work that will not be completed in any of our lifetimes, and it is not always easy to know whether we are dismantling power or helping to preserve it. This means we must be in it for the very long haul.


I hope at least some of these lessons are helpful – if so, I have created an infographic that you might want to download as a reminder (it can be used as a wallpaper or screensaver, or printed out if you prefer – click the image below to open full size, in order to save).

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