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Graham Towl

New frontiers in forensic psychology: Tackling sexual violence in universities

10 November 2016 | by Graham Towl

Please welcome Professor Graham Towl of Durham University to the new BPS website, with his first blog post, dealing with the issue of sexual violence in UK universities.

A recently-released report by Universities UK (see this article in The Psychologist for more information) on sexual violence, harassment, and hate crimes at universities has issued a number of recommendations aimed at addressing these issues through effective forms of prevention and response.

Given that sexual offending is underreported in general, universities therefore have a significant role to play in ensuring that there is a safe and supportive environment where anyone who encounters sexual violence is made to feel supported and empowered to report their experience.

Many university students are at a higher risk of being victims of sexual offences than is the case with the general population. According to self-reported data, young women have consistently been found to be at a relatively high risk of being the victims of sexual offences, with young men most often the perpetrators.

Given that universities tend to bring large groups of young women and young men together in increasingly large numbers it is perhaps unsurprising, even given our limited knowledge of sexual offending, that in universities up and down the country (and in other countries too) there is a very high probability that acts of sexual violence will, unfortunately, take place.

University environments therefore give us a unique opportunity to intervene with preventative methods.

Of paramount concern is the need to ensure that students understand what constitutes consent to sex, especially in terms of both coercion and capacity. Increasingly there are 'consent workshops' being held in universities and also there are some indications that bystander interventions are becoming more prevalent.

Some key components necessary to construct a strategy to address sexual offending at universities include the development of specific policies and procedures to encourage the reporting of sexual violence, educational programmes, clear and accessible support and information for those reporting sexual violence, and counselling support for both reporting parties and respondents.

Universities should also routinely provide information on reporting levels from students who have experienced sexual violence as well as the actions that have been taken. Higher reporting rates in universities may also serve not only as a deterrent but also to encourage higher reporting rates elsewhere too, as it becomes a more normative response to completely unacceptable behaviour.

Crucially, higher reporting levels mean that university staff have the opportunity to ensure that students receive the support they need as a result of the experience and aftermath of sexual violence. Ultimately however we need to ensure that the empowerment of those reporting sexual violence at universities underpins whatever approach is taken.

Professor Graham Towl

Professor of Forensic Psychology, Durham University, UK

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