Investigation: Why do just one in 14 students report sexual assault cases to their uni?
The real number of sexual assaults at UK universities could be as high as 15,000 a year
CW: Details of sexual assault
Christina, a student at King’s, was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at his house.
She would have liked to report the incident to her uni, but only briefly considered it before deciding not to.
“I looked online and just decided it wasn’t worth it”, she told The Tab, after hearing stories of friends who’d gone through a traumatic reporting process only to have nothing happen.
Christina isn’t alone in deciding not to report her experience of sexual assault to her university.
Just one in 14 students reports their sexual assault to their university
93 per cent of students who experience sexual assault at university do not report it to their universities, The Tab’s sexual assault survey has revealed.
Despite reports to universities doubling in four years, the statistics suggest that the true extent of the problem is unknown.
Hidden, unreported incidents could be over 14 times more common than those that do get reported – meaning thousands of sexual assaults go unreported at UK universities every year.
In 2019/20, students reported 1,100 incidents. If those represented the seven per cent of assaults our survey suggests do get reported, then the true number of sexual assaults happening at universities could be as high as 15,000 per year. That’s 41 every day.
59 per cent of women who responded to our survey said they’d been sexually assaulted at uni.
Students who had been sexually assaulted at university told The Tab of their reasons for choosing not to report. They often said they had a lack of confidence in university processes, didn’t know where to turn for help, and had experienced a lack of belief in what had happened to them.
An expert in how universities handle sexual violence has warned that low reporting rates mean students are missing out not just on justice, but on care that they desperately need after traumatic experiences.
Professor Graham Towl, who specialises in universities’ handling of sexual violence, claims it is a “scandal” universities don’t talk about how they handle it during open days, and called on them to publicly announce figures on how many students have been disciplined.
‘I was worried they’d deal with it by getting us to sit together and talk about it’
When Katie* was assaulted in her Exeter halls, she didn’t report what had happened to the university.
Katie, who requested her real name not be used for this story, broke up with her boyfriend in Freshers’ and went to Spoons for drinks with a boy she’d been chatting to in a halls group chat. After just a couple of drinks, she says “if I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought that I’d been spiked.”
He walked her back to her halls and came up to charge his phone.
“As soon as the door of my room shut, he was on me,” she said.
“I do remember lying there and thinking ‘I don’t want this, this is really uncomfortable’. I froze and couldn’t do anything. I remember him saying ‘it was gonna happen eventually, just go with it’.”
Shell-shocked, Katie told a flatmate about it the next day as she changed her sheets.
She told her flatmate, who she didn’t know that well: “I think something bad happened last night and I can’t really remember what it was. I ended up sleeping with him and I didn’t want to.”
“I thought you liked him,” her flatmate replied.
Scared of being judged, Katie decided not to tell anybody after that, thinking what had happened wasn’t that important.
“She didn’t even hint to me that what happened was bad, let alone incredibly wrong or illegal,” she told The Tab. “I just clammed up and didn’t tell anybody, and just hoped it would go away.
“I couldn’t face having another person telling me I was lying”.
Another factor for Katie was the perception among her and her fellow students that university processes weren’t up to scratch.
“The general consensus is that the uni try to deal with things at a local level, trying not to get the police or authorities involved unless they have to,” she said.
Exeter told The Tab this was “false information”, and that all sexual violence is treated as a crime.
Beyond the perception her and her friends had, Katie hadn’t been given any idea of where she would report if she wanted to, and she didn’t know how the process would go. “I was worried they’d deal with it by getting us to sit together and talk about it,” she said.
In the end, not being able to report left her feeling “isolated and scared”, and she ended up going to therapy to deal with what had happened.
In response to questions from The Tab, Exeter said it has worked to improve its reporting systems and is also reviewing a course introduced last year, training freshers on women’s safety, and developing bystander intervention training for its students.
In a statement, the university said: “We have put in place a wide range of safety and support measures in recent years, improved our policies and reporting system and continue to work with students, colleagues and community partners to tackle misogyny and violence against women.”
‘Universities need to go back to the drawing board’
Not on My Campus, a group of students working to tackle sexual assault in universities, say the main reason students choose not to report assaults is “often a lack of confidence in the ability of the university to provide a sense of justice, as well as fear that they will not be believed.”
In our survey, almost half of those who did report their assault to their uni said they were very unsatisfied with their uni’s handling of the report. Just a quarter said they were satisfied.
Just one in 10 said they were told both the outcome of their case and the punishment given to the perpetrator.
There’s also a burden placed on survivors going through the reporting process. “Students considering whether to submit a report are being left in the incredibly difficult position of deciding whether to put their own degree and well-being on the line in the hopes of some sort of justice,” a spokesperson for the group told The Tab.
“For different student communities there are distinct barriers that make it incredibly difficult for them to report. “
Universities need to “go back to the drawing board” with their sexual assault policies, NOMC say and consult all students in figuring out new procedures.
“Emphasis on empowering survivors and letting them have control over their situation rather than trying to guide or advise them on what to do would probably increase trust in the system,” the group added.
‘It would be a huge process, and frankly I just don’t want to talk to him again’
In Amber’s Exeter halls, the doors between flats didn’t have locks, and if you forget to lock your bedroom door at night, people from another flat can get in. Naturally, during freshers, Amber* (not her real name) didn’t remember to lock her bedroom door every night.
On more than one occasion, she woke up to find a boy from another flat standing at the foot of her bed, watching her sleep. Each time he ran off, but one time she found him in her room in just his pants.
“I don’t think there’s ever a not terrifying reason for a naked guy to go into your room while you’re sleeping,” she said.
Amber spent the night crying thinking about dropping out of uni, and spent money on a heavy-duty door stop.
“I very much blamed myself for not locking my door,” she said.
After this, she threatened to go to campus police. He reacted by bringing her a “very nice” bottle of wine, apologising but then telling Amber “I just really didn’t want you to go to the police.”
But she didn’t report it to the university in the end – partly because she thought the problem had gone away, but also because she didn’t want to “ruin his life”.
Even now, Amber still toys with the idea, but has mostly given up. “It would be a huge process, and I frankly just don’t want to talk to him again.”
‘Most universities don’t mention sexual violence on open days. I think that’s a scandal’
Low reporting rates mean that students miss out not only on getting justice, but on support at a vulnerable time, says Graham Towl, a professor at Durham who specialises in researching sexual violence in universities.
Universities can be doing more to make students feel confident in their processes, he says. Katie, from Exeter Uni, spoke of not knowing where to report, and Towl believes universities should be making things far more obvious to students.
“Most universities don’t mention sexual violence on open days. I think that’s a scandal,” Towl told The Tab. He thinks unis should run advertising campaigns and make prospective students aware of how the problem is handled even before they start, rather than pretending their university is free from the problem.
“Probably the single most important factor in what universities can do better is to invest financially in the area. Has the university got some full-time staff whole job it is solely to address sexual violence?” Towl said.
More than one person who spoke to The Tab mentioned being worried about having to talk to the perpetrator again during the disciplinary process. Towl says this shouldn’t be happening, and that unis should interview all parties separately.
He also suggests that universities could announce each month how many people they’ve sanctioned for sexual violence. “Otherwise there’s a lack of awareness that things actually happen, and that might erode confidence if people feel nothing has happened,” he said.
Just as low conviction rates can put survivors off from going to the police, a lack of visible action may put people off reporting. Publishing updates would also act as a deterrent, Towl says.
“The reputational damage for a university is far greater in covering these things up, not talking about them, and being in a state of denial,” he told The Tab.
“I would look very carefully at those universities that have very low rates of reporting – to me that may be indicative of a university and leadership team in a state of denial than it would be plausibly that it’s safe for students.”
‘It’s just not something I felt I could handle’
For Christina at King’s, being an international student played a big part in her decision not to go to the uni.
“Reporting seems to be quite a difficult thing, and it’s just not something I felt that I could handle,” she said. “It’s definitely a factor that my family wouldn’t be here to support me through it.
“I’ve heard several stories from people I know, they went through the process, had to relive their trauma to all these different panels and in the end nothing happened,” Christina told The Tab.
“Anyone who has anything like that happen to them should feel comfortable and have the resources to report. People who are doing stuff like that should be held accountable. It’s really sad and frustrating.”
KCL did not respond to questions asked by The Tab for this story.
A spokesperson for the University of Exeter said: “The safety, security and wellbeing of our students is, and always will be, our primary concern.
“We have put in place a wide range of safety and support measures in recent years, improved our policies and reporting system and continue to work with students, colleagues and community partners to tackle misogyny and violence against women – this includes a special session of the Provost Commission in April on our collective role as a community and institution.
“We have made it clear to all members of our community that we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment, abuse or assault, and that criminal or disciplinary proceedings will be brought against those who commit these offences. Any form of violence or sexual violence is always a crime.
“We will continue to support each other and work together to keep all members of our community safe and feeling safe. We encourage all students to report and get the support they need through our Exeter Speaks Out web pages as well as our wellbeing support for students and staff or the Students’ Guild Advice Service or the Students’ Union Advice Service.”
The Tab’s Do Better campaign is putting a focus on the rising student sexual assault problem. Universities need to do more to support students and the culture around sexual assault needs to change.
Read more from The Tab’s Do Better campaign:
Featured image credit: Letty Maurin, @_letty.m_