Long Reads

“What the increased reports of sexual abuse at Cambridge University really show”

Posted by
Emily Reynolds

Cambridge University has released statistics showing an increase in reports of sexual misconduct on campus. Here’s why that might actually be a good thing.

Recent statistics from Cambridge University have revealed a “significant” problem with sexual misconduct at the university – with 173 anonymous reports being filed since a specialised form was set up in May 2017. This is more reports recorded than over the last five years combined. And the figure is shocking: 173 reports in less than a year clearly indicates a serious problem at the institution.

However, despite the negative tone of many headlines reporting on the news, there are a number of reasons why these statistics could actually be a good thing.

Whether we know about it or not, there is an epidemic of abuse happening across the world, in every situation imaginable. The breadth of #MeToo was shocking even to those of us who are clued-up about sexual assault, or have experienced it ourselves; it was impossible for anyone to realise exactly how prevalent it was, or how many people had been affected by it.

Crucially, increased figures, whether they come from universities, workplaces or other institutions, do not necessarily indicate higher offending rates. Instead, they represent an opportunity for us to shift towards a better understanding of exactly how widespread the problem really is. And as we grapple with the aftermath of months of discussion of #MeToo, and try to work out what happens next, that kind of understanding is totally vital. 

Cambridge University isn’t the only place with a sexual assault problem

Hannah Price, founder of Revolt Sexual Assault, a campaigning group aiming to “give a voice to survivors of sexual violence at universities”, also believes the statistics could be a positive thing. Price points to the “shockingly low” report rates at university, which she says are “not representative of the huge epidemic students are having to live amongst”. A 2015 report from The Telegraph found that one in three female students had been assaulted or abused on campus – but, in 2017, a Guardian investigation found that “scores” of victims were “dissuaded from making official complains”. Others said they didn’t report their experiences because they were “fearful of the impact on their education or careers”. 

Price set up Revolt Sexual Assault after she was raped at university – and, having worked with hundreds of survivors, she knows how prevalent assault is on campus. The group has also launched a national survey to attempt to understand the problem better. 

“The Cambridge stats are really promising for the sector,” she explains. “We know that sexual assault is a huge issue across UK university campuses, but the report rates are not reflective of the scale of the problem and are incredibly low.”

And Katie Russell, operations manager at Rape Crisis England and Wales, agrees.

“We know that sexual offences of all kinds are chronically under-reported, so it’s more than likely that these reported figures reflect a better understanding of the prevalence of sexual violence on campus, rather than an actual increase in the number of incidents taking place.

“This is certainly something to be cautiously welcomed”. 

who to report sexual assault

Thousands of women are assaulted during their time at university 

Russell points to Cambridge’s new anonymous reporting mechanism as a vital part in this, but stresses that “it doesn’t necessarily mean more survivors and victims of sexual assaults and violence feel more confident to make formal reports”. It’s much easier for people to report anonymously – there’s less chance they won’t be believed, for one, and many victims are unwilling or unable to go through formal complaint procedures, which are often traumatic. 

Price also points out that the same policies and disciplinary procedures are often used for sexual assault as in cases of plagiarism – meaning victims feel disempowered, unprotected and not listened to. The low report rates are hardly a surprise. 

The figures are not the be all and end all, either: there are plenty more things that universities need to do to start dealing with assault better. 

“Training for all frontline staff likely to be the first person a victim or survivor discloses to is vital – to enable them to respond appropriately and sensitively, and be in a position to signpost individuals to specialist support and information, like their local Rape Crisis Centre,” Russell says.

 “Good awareness-raising campaigns clearly also have a positive impact, and clear policies and procedures around reporting and dealing with sexual violence are a must for any organisation and institution.”

Universities and employers alike need to make sure that people are not only protected from sexual violence but that they have a way of reporting it safely. Price believes that universities in particular need to provide “effective report tools, awareness campaigns, specialist staff and survivor focused policies”.

The more we campaign to raise awareness of sexual violence, in the workplace, at home and on campus, the higher report rates will rise. But high rates indicate that people are finally starting to feel able to speak about the violence that they’ve been experiencing – and that brings us closer to eliminating that violence once and for all. 

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