Exclusive – The Main Points of The University of Southampton’s Action Plan on Sexual Consent

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The following article, co-written by Laura Barr, President of the Sexual Consent Awareness (SCA) Society, and as a guest author Martin Hiley, SUSU Insights Manager, details some of the main elements of the action plan drawn up by a working group to promote sexual consent awareness and tackle sexual assault within the student community which the University Council, the University of Southampton’s highest decision-making body, formally backed on 17th May 2019.

Content Warning: Mentions of sexual harassment, assault and rape.

The Journey.

The issue of sexual assault and misconduct at universities is a national problem, and has also been highlighted in American universities too. Globally, student activists have been calling on their institutions to prevent and respond to this issue.

At Southampton, although current support was good, we felt there were gaps in what we could be doing to help survivors of sexual assault and rape and also prevent this from happening.

This isn’t a new movement by any means. Student activists at Southampton have been campaigning, bringing attention to and helping survivors for years. It has taken a long time, and a lot of work from many different people to get to this point.

I took over as President of SCA in late 2017, and this time almost exactly one year ago in 2018, I was having meetings with various members of staff to organise a new project myself and SCA wanted to do: understand what is really going on at the University of Southampton.

Credit: Hannah Short.

This month, the University Council approved the action plan proposed to them which was influenced by the findings of a survey of the student community by SCA Society and SUSU held between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019.

Within that year, so much has happened. The survey we ran was a success, with 857 responses. We had 6 survivors bravely tell their stories in short films. As a student, I was able to be a central member of the sexual harassment, assault and rape working group, which included members of the Students’ Union and the University, and be centrally involved in the action plan that was presented to University Council this May. We got Yellow Door, the local rape crisis charity, selected as the local charity of the year for RAG 2018/19. SCA held a month’s worth of events dedicated to raising awareness of sexual consent, led a sports and consent campaign, worked with Survivors UK and Yellow Door for speaker events, campaigns and awareness raising.

I worked with Martin Hiley, the Union’s Insight Manager, over the summer of Summer 2018 and met with multiple members of SUSU to develop this, including Isabella Camilleri, the current Vice-President Welfare, Steve Gore, VP Sports and Acting President, and Sonia Cottrell, Director of Advice and Representation.

In November 2018, we released the first-ever all-student survey Southampton University had seen. We teamed up with multiple other societies for various events, including Zumba+, Debating Society, Hung Lung Kuen Fung Fu and many others to promote self-defence classes, promote consent, and promote the support available. Our aim was to find out the experiences from students themselves, and listen directly to the student voice. I particularly wanted to capture LGBT+, BAME and male experiences as well, and their relation to accessibility with support services, as an area to identify and respond to as a more inclusive and wider picture of the student body. Our survey responses reflected generally the demographics of the wider student body.

Our first win came when a medicine student, Sarah, worked with myself, the VP Welfare and Medsoc to propose funding for consent classes within the faculty of medicine. This funding was approved in March 2019, and the classes are being currently trialled with Yellow Door. This was in response to a multitude of comments on the survey calling for more education and more mandatory classes to promote understanding of sexual consent on a more nuanced level.

Our next win came when Kerry Matthews, Director of Student Services at the University, secured funding for a highly qualified therapist with a specialisation in sexual trauma to help us from now over the next few months to keep the momentum of our action plan going, and provide expertise.

Our most recent win is the endorsement of our action plan, which means the University has committed funding, resources and support to both response and prevention at the University. This was in response to 64% of the 857 students who responded to our survey reporting some incident(s) of sexual harassment, assault or rape, which approximately follows previous surveys of students nationwide on the issue. We presented this action plan on May 23rd to the students and to stakeholders.

The journey has had its trials but overall, within a year we have all achieved a real success, even if that’s just simply listening to survivors. We want to promote discussion, allow people to ask the uncomfortable questions so they can learn from them, and provide more positive space for survivors to be heard. This survey has allowed us to understand the attitudes and concerns of the student body within this topic, and we strive to continue educating ourselves and the student body on this matter in an intersectional way. I hope you continue to support us in the years ahead as we continue to develop this with lead from the students.

Credit: SUSU.

The Results and Action Plan, by Martin Hiley.

Our survey was completely anonymous to protect students’ identities and to assure students that any information they provided was private and confidential. However, we gave students the option to select certain demographics for us to use to further inform our campaign. All questions had the option to select ‘Prefer not to say’ but the majority of students did indeed choose to select their demographics.

From the results, we can see that we had responses from many different cohorts of student, including undergraduate students, mature students, postgraduate students, the LGBT+ community, BAME communities, male and female students, students with disabilities and students with a mental health condition.

This information follows a national picture that these issues are not confined to any particular cohort of people and is a wider social issue. This theme formed a central part of the development of our action plan. We put our students at the heart of our plan and ensured that it was inclusive to all students that are at our University, including other campuses such as WSA, and international students.

SUSU logo
Credit: SUSU

We therefore believe that our action plan will be relevant and positive for every student at the University. However, we also took into consideration the unique backgrounds and motivations that affect these demographics, such as hate-motivated harassment and assault, and the fact that they are not homogeneous.

We have incorporated a dedication to include this within our initiatives and will be bringing in students and equality and diversity advocates to inform and develop this further. The Students’ Union has dedicated to ensuring awareness is being raised across the board with their initiatives, including awareness of male sexual assault, LGBT+ and BAME, as well as the inequalities in accessing support with these groups.

Overall, we found our university to be in line with the wider national picture.The results of our own research were very similar to research that has been undertaken across the UK at higher education institutions.

We found a number of key areas where our results match previous research into this wider social issue at UK universities:

1) March 2019: Brook and Dig-In research: ‘many [students]admitted a lack of understanding of what legally constitutes sexual   harassment and violence.’

We found: A lack of understanding of what legally constitutes sexual harassment and violence. We also found a lack of understanding around particular issues regarding consent, for example, the need to take into account a person’s  capacity to consent and consent within relationships. We found a trend that refuted common stereotypes of violent and stranger rapes but a misunderstanding and a lack of ability to communicate with others about consent and potential violations and boundaries.

2) Revolt Sexual Assault 2018 research: 62% of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence.

We found: Almost identically to the national picture, 64% of our respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. This includes incidents that occurred outside of the University, for example, in bars and nightclubs, but also captures violations that happen within relationships of many kinds.

3) March 2019: Brook and Dig-In research: Overall, 8% of respondents said they reported these incidents to the police or their university.

We found: 8% of our respondents said they reported these incidents to the police or the University.

4) 2016: Changing the Culture, UK Universities report – ‘These experiences can have a considerable impact on student wellbeing’.

We found: These experiences have a profound and significant impact on the wellbeing and academic success of our students. The vast majority of students here had not accessed any support service.

We acknowledge that students are facing considerable barriers to accessing support, and these barriers are being addressed in our action plan. This is shown across the UK, as identified by a BBC News article published on 23rd May which stated:

University students are posting allegations of sexual abuse online, as they do not feel their universities are listening, a National Union of Students (NUS) official has said.

NUS women’s officer Sarah Lasoye said sexual assault was the “biggest issue facing female students at university”. During the past month, there have been more than 15,000 retweets of claims from students at seven UK universities.

At Southampton, we hope to show other universities how change can be made by the collaborative approach with students in order to acknowledge this issue but take necessary steps to change it. Many universities across the UK are not listening to students or taking any action at their institutions to challenge and change this serious social issue. However, the University of Southampton have been progressive, positive and passionate about delivering an action plan that will support and include both current and future students. We do not pretend to suggest this will fix the issue, as much of it is systemic and societal. But, through acknowledgement from the institutions involved and bravery of the survivors and students, we believe this will be a step forward to positive change.

Our comprehensive action plan was developed from, and as a result of, the feedback we received from our students. It has been agreed by the Student’s Union, SCA Society and the University of Southampton in a truly collaborative manner that has put students first at all times. Further, it has been endorsed by Hampshire Constabulary and Yellow Door who believe it will be positive for students. The student who led on this project will be SUSU’s incoming VP Welfare and Communities, and will be bringing in new students within the body to keep the student voice going.

Our plan includes but is not limited to, the following key action points:

1. Prevent

a) Develop a series of student-led workshops or training materials, which educates students on sexual consent, harassment and violence. We will then explore how these workshops can be made compulsory for all students and new staff members, and how they can be tailored for specific cohorts of students.

b) Develop an overarching set of guidelines and/or policies for how the University and Students’ Union will respond to reports of sexual harassment and violence, including clear processes and procedures.

c) The University and Students’ Union to continue the current work towards improving lighting and safety on Southampton Common and other areas with high student populations.

d) Develop more inclusive and student led campaigns dedicated to raising awareness of sexual consent, education and access to support and information.

2. Report

a) Develop a single online reporting tool for victims of sexual harassment and violence to report any incidents either anonymously or via disclosure of their personal details for onward contact.

b) Delivery of training to core student facing staff to ensure they know how to respond to a disclosure.

3. Support

a) Creation of specific roles within the University for trained personnel to provide students with high quality and accessible support.

b) Review Special Considerations processes for both taught and research programmes to support students who have been the victim of sexual harassment, assault or rape. 

This student-led action plan will deliver positive changes for students and set an example to other universities that being proactive in challenging these issues can, and should, happen. Where other institutions are currently not listening to students concerns, our Union and University have heard the student voice and delivered a plan that will support students in years to come. Change is coming.

If you would like to get in touch with us about this, please email SUSU at reception@soton.ac.uk, with the subject matter to the authors of this article.

If this topic affects you, here are some local and national services you can use:

  • The Union’s report harassment tool, available by clicking here.
  • The University’s enabling services, available by clicking here.
  • Helpline Yellow Door Southampton: 023 8063 6313 (Available Wednesday: 4pm-7pm).
  • Helpline Survivors UK: 020 3598 3898 (male specific).
  • Stop Hate UK (campaign): stophateuk.org and their helplines:
  • LGBT+ and Transgender Hate crime: 0808 801 0661.
  • Learning Disability Hate crime: 0808 802 1155.
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