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15 September 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:47am

One in four students experience unwanted sexual advances. What can we do about it?

Harassment is rife in UK universities – the passing the buck approach of “not on my campus” is no longer acceptable.

By Toni Pearce

Today the National Union of Students (NUS) published new research into lad culture and sexism on campus, revealing that one in four students experience unwanted sexual advances. That is shocking but unsurprising. These behaviours are associated with lad culture on campus, problems the NUS has been trying to tackle for over a year now.

We started in March 2013 with the publication of “That’s what she said: women students experiences of lad culture in higher education Realising the primary recommendation of that research in February this year we held a summit on lad culture.

Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, Lucy Holmes, No More Page 3, The Great Initiative, Girlguiding, and The Good Lad all came together as part of the “NUS confronts lad culture” summit. The summit was supported by then Minister for Women and Equalities Jenny Willott, who urged unions and universities to work together to create safe and supportive university environments. Strikingly, there was no institutional representation at the summit – though they were invited.

To my knowledge, no university (Plymouth being the notable exception) seems to think it plays a role in tackling a campus culture that permits a “Fresher’s Violation” club night advertised with a video of a male student saying he would rape a female peer. Or university students going out in casual rape T-shirts and playing “it’s not rape if…” drinking games. These are not isolated occurrences but part of a larger culture that has a serious negative impact on students’ academic experiences.

Today’s research reveals that three quarters of students are aware of online communities such as “Unilad” and “lad bible”, with over half of these agreeing that the sites contribute towards an unfair representation of women (there are no equivalent sites objectifying men, of course). Last year Unilad hailed the fact that 85 per cent of rape cases go unreported as “good odds”.

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Social media trends, such as “Spotted”, “Rate your Shag”, and “Confessions” pages allow students to anonymously pass judgement on other students, abound on university campuses.

A student recently told me that his mates constantly joke that women should “just say yes, and then it’s not rape”. The research highlights the prevalence of this attitude on campuses, with almost two thirds of respondents having heard these. I’d like to see rape jokes becoming as rightly intolerable as race jokes. I think that’s something universities could easily get behind.

More than a quarter of our respondents endure unwanted sexual comments about their body. Comments like “what a pair”, “great ass”, “nice legs” – are recognisable to everyone for a reason, in fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that almost every woman I know has experienced this. They are REAL, and believe me they are unwanted. However, and I want to raise this specifically, women can be just as guilty at rating a man on his appearance and making inappropriate comments, and actually to leave that unchecked is in itself inherently sexist

Two thirds of students say that they have seen fellow students experience sexual comments and overtly sexual conversations. I want institutions to ask students – are you conscious about what you wear? Does it affect your behaviour? Would you agree there’s safety numbers?  If your students answer yes then I implore them to see this isn’t fair. It isn’t acceptable. If we don’t ensure that this generation knows that, accepts that, changes accordingly, what of the next?

We need a new deal for students. It’s clear to me that unless institutions get on board with our work that this cannot happen, and these problems will not be tackled completely. NUS will continue our work regardless of their support, but to be 100 per cent effective, we need their involvement.

At the summit this year we announced the Lad Culture National Strategy Team, which includes students, students unions, and a range of external stakeholders with a vested interest in tackling lad culture and sexism on campus. Today the team has shared its action plan to address this endemic campus culture.

The National Strategy Team will launch its lad culture pilot scheme for unions next month, with the central aim of supporting unions to develop a cross-institutional strategy team to examine ways to tackle lad culture. This will happen in two steps – model audit and five to ten unions.

Now I say to universities everywhere – the passing the buck approach of “not on my campus” is no longer acceptable. You must acknowledge the problems and join us in confronting them. We all play a role in the student experience. We have a duty of care for our students, but we also have to remember that our universities are public institutions and we have a responsibility to begin to tackle what is a wider problem in society, on our doorsteps. We all have a responsibility to empower students to change, and I know that we can make it better.

Toni Pearce is the President of the National Union of Students

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