Durham University’s sexual misconduct record under the spotlight once more


Durham has once again faced scrutiny following a Buzzfeed News investigation into the ubiquity of sexual misconduct, almost one year after figures exposed a “vile culture of sexual violence.”

Last year, Durham University was exposed as having some of the highest rates of reported sexual assault at universities across the country.

The figures revealed that 36 attacks had been reported over the two years preceding the publication of the report.

This was the same number of reported offences as Oxford, but higher proportionally given Durham’s smaller student cohort.

The notoriety of these high-profile cases, coupled with subsequent national media attention, has led Durham to launch a new Sexual Violence and Misconduct strategy effective for the 2017/18 academic year.

Last year’s figures revealed some 36 attacks had been reported over the previous two years

Durham also has the first dedicated student support officer for sexual violence in the county. As part of this strategy, every college is required to incorporate messages around sexual violence and consent into Freshers’ Week activities.

Many colleges ran compulsory ‘consent workshops’ in which definitions of consent and sexual misconduct were discussed.

The University has developed its Consent Matters online training course, which aim to show students how to approach this kind of harassment. The course, however, remains optional.

The Respect Matters campaign has also been renewed.

The University has trained investigators in place to ensure reports of sexual violence and misconduct do not go under-investigated.

Palatinate spoke to James (whose name has been altered for anonymity), who was involved in the running of consent workshops this year. James stated that there were high levels of proactive engagement from male students, with “a large number of them volunteer[ing] to actually help present the talks.”

He told Palatinate: “I think that goes to show that people are serious about this, and the kind of people who are being blamed by others are in fact leading the charge; they understand that there is something wrong in Durham, and they want to change it.”

However, some students still do not feel that enough is being done to tackle sexual violence in Durham.

A third-year student, who wished to remain anonymous, told Palatinate: “As a woman, I definitely feel uncomfortable in Durham at night at times. Heavy drinking and sporty, laddy culture [are] rife.

“I think a lot of people aren’t even aware of the low-level misogyny they help perpetuate sometimes.

“I was really shocked last year by the reaction from some of my male friends and people on Facebook when the media reported on the levels of sexual assault at Durham; they almost seemed to think this was some attack on them personally, as if it was all just slander and exaggeration.”

Buzzfeed News reported that Durham Professor, Graham Towl, said he was frustrated by the media coverage which exposed Durham in this way.

He stated: “The most likely hypothesis is that people are trusting the University more to come forward.

“That’s contrary to all the evidence that we know anywhere else, that doesn’t stand any scrutiny at all,” he said.

“The most likely hypothesis is that people are trusting the University more to come forward”

“There is a very low reporting level generally—huge underreporting with sexual violence in society. It’s a real problem; I know from my time at the Home Office.

“I think the universities with the highest reporting levels are those addressing this issue. These universities with a very low reporting levels have more work to do.”

James echoed Towl, saying that the prevalence of sexual violence at Durham is “generally misunderstood.”

He outlined his view that “a higher recorded rate of sexual violence is indicative of a culture where victims feel more comfortable reporting it.

“At other universities, where enough isn’t being done, people don’t feel comfortable reporting sexual violence, so it seems like there isn’t a problem.

“Here at Durham we’ve started to try and combat the problem, and as a result, the numbers look worse. This is the first stage when you try and combat sexual violence, the numbers get worse, but the next stage is change cultures and see the numbers decline.

“It’s the first stage in the process of kicking out sexual violence from our community.”

It Happens Here Durham (IHH), is an extension of a campaign which was created at Oxford—a University with similarly high levels of sexual violence.

The University’s Sexual Violence Task Force, one of the first of its kind in the UK, has worked in conjunction with IHH, Durham Feminist Society, the Students’ Union, other student groups and the police to create the University’s sexual violence policy.

In a statement to Palatinate, Owen Adams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), said: “We want all staff and students to feel safe and enjoy their time at Durham. “In order to accomplish this, it is important that we all share in the responsibility for creating and sustaining an environment which upholds respect and dignity for all.

The prevalence of sexual violence at Durham is, says one consent workshop organiser, “generally misunderstood.”

“Sexual violence and misconduct will not be tolerated at Durham University and if a member of our community experiences this, they will be supported.

“The University has worked to remove barriers to disclosing sexual violence. We believe that the increased number of disclosures is a result of heightened awareness and creating an environment where survivors feel comfortable about coming forward.

“Sexual violence and misconduct is a matter of international concern. The University is taking major steps to create a community where survivors are supported while striving to eliminate sexual violence.

“The Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy clearly defines what is considered sexual violence and misconduct and sets out principles which all members of the University are expected to follow. It confirms the University’s commitment to promot[ing] a culture in which sexual violence will not be tolerated and will be addressed by outlining a procedure for how the University will investigate an allegation.”

Photograph: summonedbyfells / Creative Commons via Flickr

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