‘We all have a responsibility to challenge sexual violence in universities’

Madeleine Pownall reports from the student stream at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

Most psychologists spend their career promoting and campaigning for tolerance. ‘I’m different’, says Professor Graham Towl, addressing the audience of the Annual Conference student stream. ‘I want to spread intolerance. Intolerance for sexual violence in universities.’

Professor Towl, who was previously Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice and is currently working at Durham Univeristy, has been researching the complexities of sexual violence in a university context for years. Recent national data reports that sexual violence on campus is growing to unprecedented levels. However, what’s tricky about these reports is how positive cultures of reporting may conflate these metrics. The two cannot be disentangled, which proves problematic for gaining a true picture of the state of sexual violence on campus. But Towl’s years of experience in this area have made him somewhat sceptical of universities with low sexual violence reporting figures. These figures should not be taken at face value, he warns. High reporting figures, in contrast, demonstrate a culture of trust and openness. Students feel that they can come forward and that they are listened to. This willingness to report, which is by default reflected in higher overall figures of sexual violence, is a ‘positive sign’, Towl explains.

Once a student has reported sexual violence, there is important work that needs to be done from a psychological perspective on ‘what happens next’. A lot of the crucial elements of this process are easily overlooked. ‘Language matters’, explains Towl. The way we refer to parties within a disclosure of sexual violence carries huge weight psychologically. In light of this, it is recommended to distinguish both the parties as ‘the reporting’ and ‘the reported’. Towl explains that these terms are more neutral and objective than ‘victim’ or ‘alleged’, which carry connotations beyond purely the psychological. For example, ‘alleged’ is a term used to describe a participant in a criminal justice procedure, which most internal university sexual violence procedures do not constitute. These nuances are important to capture, especially given the psychological sensitivity of these processes.

So, now that we know there is a sexual violence problem in universities, what can we do it about it? Towl offers some words of practical advice. ‘We need to acknowledge that we have a significant problem’, he begins. This is the key, if we are prepared to recognise sexual violence as an issue in this context, we can have more open and genuine conversations that capture the true extent of this issue. A major barrier to this is the perceived reputational damage that disclosures of sexual violence have on universities. It is easier, explains Towl, to deny the prevalence of sexual violence on campuses than to tackle the issue head-on.

To add to this, students, by their very demographic nature, often represent ‘a range of vulnerabilities’ in relation to this kind of violence. Therefore, we need to think carefully about how the approach to sexual violence is communicated and enacted throughout various channels. Offering some specific examples of how we can do this, Towl suggests that universities publish their reporting figures openly, inform students of their sexual violence policies at recruitment events, and think about how prevention can be embedded into every aspect of the institution’s culture. Towl ends by stressing that in the context of this evolving and complex issue: ‘we all have a responsibility to challenge sexual violence’. 

- Read more in our archive.

- More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on the site in the coming weeks, and in the July edition.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber