We use the term sexual misconduct to describe forms of power enacted by academic and professional staff in their relations with students (this can also occur in relations with other staff members). Sexual harassment is one of many behaviours encompassed by misconduct, which can include assault, grooming, bullying, sexual invitations, comments, non-verbal communication, creation of atmospheres of discomfort, and promised resources in exchange for sexual access. The term ‘sexual harassment’ captures only some of the possible abuses of power that may occur.
Research from the US shows that these issues are particularly prevalent during postgraduate studies, when students are more likely to work on an individual basis with academic staff.
Why do higher education institutions need to pay attention to this issue?
To ensure gender and racial equality.
According to research from the US (AAU, 2015)*, female identified, trans and non-binary students appear to be predominantly affected by sexual misconduct in higher education, however students across all gender identities are impacted. The impact of sexual misconduct is further compounded by racism, where students who are Black, Asian and from other global majority populations may find it more difficult to report the sexual misconduct of staff, and find the support on campus that they need. LGBTQ students experience high rates of sexual misconduct within higher education. The differentiated experiences of students, including students with disabilities, and students who may have disclosed and undisclosed mental health issues, need to be addressed by institutions. Higher education institutions, as public bodies, have a statutory duty to provide equal access to education for all.
To combat attrition.
Sexual misconduct appears to have a strong connection to attrition, particularly from postgraduate programmes. Students may drop out, interrupt, transfer institutions or disappear without ever making a complaint or disclosing their experience.
To safeguard their reputation.
Institutional reputations can be damaged by revelations of sexual misconduct by academic staff. We know that institutions often act only when their reputation is at risk.
To prevent the psychological damage and suffering which is caused by sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.
This may include PTSD or other mental health problems, and can result in loss of education, and loss of career potential and the secure future of survivors of sexual misconduct. There is often very limited support available for those who report abuse, while the effects can be long-term and far-reaching.
To provide a positive learning environment for all students.
Sexual misconduct doesn’t affect just the students who experience it; it affects the culture of a whole department and an entire institution. Its impact can reverberate for years, well after the academic staff responsible have left.
*Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Townsend, R., Lee, H., Bruce, C., and Thomas, G., 2015. ‘Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct’. Association of American Universities. https://www.aau.edu/uploadedFiles/AAU_Publications/AAU_Reports/Sexual_Assault_Campus_Survey/AAU_Campus_Climate_Survey_12_14_15.pdf.