University responses to sexual violence on campus: comparing English & American approaches

by Erin Shannon, University of York

Although the United States has the infrastructure to respond to student disclosures of sexual violence, there seems to be little commitment to changing campus cultures that permit sexual violence to occur. If American universities have the infrastructure without commitment to institutional change, English universities have recently demonstrated a higher level of commitment to ending sexual violence with little infrastructure to do so.

What can we learn from a comparative framing of responses to sexual violence in universities?

Sexual violence in English and American universities is not a new phenomenon, yet its corresponding field of study is relatively new. Such scholarship dates back to the 1980s but has gained traction in the last decade, possibly due to several high-profile cases, national awareness-raising efforts including campaigns like ‘It’s On Us‘ and ‘I Heart Consent‘, and the rise of survivor-activist groups such as ‘End Rape on Campus‘ and ‘Know Your IX‘ in the United States and ‘Revolt Sexual Assault‘ in the United Kingdom. Despite this growth in mainstream media coverage and activist work, research on sexual violence in universities remains limited: England only began investigating it in 2010 at the urging of the National Union of Students (NUS, 2010) and while the United States has a longer record of studying the subject, the existing literature often overlooks structural issues in favour of more individualised studies of perpetrator behaviour or the impact on victims/survivors (Phipps and Smith, 2012, p. 358). Comparative studies on sexual violence in universities are even rarer, as a single study exists that analyses campus crime rates across England and the United States (Fisher and Wilkes, 2003) and this only briefly touches on sexual violence.

Looking beyond scholarship, current institutional responses to sexual violence in American and English universities fall into one of two polarised approaches: a heavily structured framework (e.g. United States) versus a culture change model (e.g. England). While these models are not mutually exclusive, universities currently treat them as such. A comparative examination of American and English universities’ responses to sexual violence highlights that both approaches are necessary, yet neither on its own is sufficient to properly respond to sexual violence in universities. On a practical implementation level, the necessity of a comparative study becomes clear: Though England does not currently have a national response framework for sexual violence in universities, Universities UK (UUK) noted in its (2016) Changing the Culture report that it is working towards creating one, and, in doing so, is studying established structures—such as the United States’ Title IX—for potential adaptation (p. 4). We must therefore understand the existing responses in both countries if we are to seriously consider policy borrowing.

Before we can discuss what this best practice sharing could look like, we need to understand how we arrived at this discussion. Policy borrowing implies a level of sameness between two contexts, and American and English universities are indeed similar. The student make-up in both countries is comparable: In the 2015-2016 academic year, 40.5% of 18-24-year-olds in the United States and 49% of 17-30-year-olds in England attended university (National Center for Education Statistics; Adams, 2017). The majority of these students are white and female (National Center for Education Statistics; “Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2016/17,” 2018). Victimisation rates in both countries are also comparable: Though more data exists about the prevalence of sexual violence in American universities than in English universities, the available research does illustrate similarities. The (2015) Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that 21.2% of final year undergraduate students experience some kind of attempted or completed sexual assault prior to graduation (Cantor et. al., p. xiv). The most vulnerable of these were female students and “TGQN” students— “transgender male, transgender female, genderqueer or non-conforming gender, questioning, not listed, and ‘decline to state’” (Cantor et. al., 2015, p. vii)—who experience sexual violence at rates of 33.1% and 39.1% respectively (Cantor et. al., 2015, p. xiv). In England, the (2010) Hidden Marks report found that, of its respondents, one in seven female students experienced a serious sexual or physical assault (NUS, p. 3, 11) and 25% experienced a form of sexual violence while in higher education (NUS, p. 16). Another constant across both countries is the perpetrator profile: The most frequent perpetrators of sexual violence in universities are not “‘masked strangers’” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 291), but rather (ex-)boyfriends, friends, classmates, or acquaintances (Fisher et. al., 2000, p. 17; Krebs et. al., 2007, p. xviii). The Hidden Marks report further revealed that the level of intimacy the perpetrator had with the victim/survivor varied across types of violence: The more severe the assault, the closer the relationship between them (NUS, 2010, p. 19).

Despite these similarities, American and English universities respond differently to student disclosures of sexual violence, and these responses represent either side of the structured framework versus culture change binary mentioned earlier. The United States has a relatively standardised federal approach, while England is witnessing many different responses by individual universities. In addition to the structural difference between the countries, there appears to be a value difference as well. Although the United States has the infrastructure to respond to student disclosures of sexual violence, there seems to be little commitment to changing campus cultures that permit sexual violence to occur. If American universities have the infrastructure without commitment to institutional change, English universities have recently demonstrated a higher level of commitment to ending sexual violence with little infrastructure to do so.

The American Framework

The framework that the United States has in place consists of two key federal directives, Title IX and the Clery Act. Title IX prohibits any discrimination based on sex in education and the (2011) Dear Colleague Letter (DCL)—updated implementation guidance from the Obama administration—explicitly situates sexual violence as an issue covered by this: “Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX” (Ali, p. 1). The DCL mandates the following: Universities must publish a non-discrimination notice that has the contact information of the Title IX Coordinator in an easily accessible place, must assign the responsibility for Title IX compliance to at least one employee, and must create and disseminate their procedures for sex discrimination complaints (Ali, 2011, p. 6). It discusses how student conduct investigations should be carried out by detailing what standard of proof is acceptable (preponderance of the evidence or “more likely than not” as opposed to a higher standard such as “beyond a reasonable doubt”); that the complainant (alleged victim/survivor) and accused (alleged perpetrator) should have equal opportunity to present evidence, though they should not directly question each other; that investigations should not take longer than 60 days; and that universities should have an appeals process in place for both parties (Ali, 2011, p. 10-12). Should a university fail to respond appropriately and quickly to a report of sexual violence, the Office for Civil Rights can revoke the university’s federal funding (Ali, 2011, p. 16). In addition to Title IX, universities must adhere to the Clery Act, which requires them to log information such as the “‘nature, date, time, and general location of each crime;’” release statistics of crimes that happen adjacent to or on campus; send out ‘timely warnings’ about immediate and/or ongoing threats to campus safety; and create an emergency response strategy (Griffin et. al., 2017, p. 403-404).

Critics of the American response framework, particularly Title IX, often point to the lack of compliance universities exhibit and its punitive, legalistic qualities. When measuring the efficacy of Title IX in responding to sexual violence, what is often actually being measured is how successfully schools comply with guidance rather than how successfully they address sexual violence. Compliance, however, can still speak to how universities (de)value student victims/survivors; it’s therefore worth noting that, despite these improved procedures, there were still universities in 2015 that lacked a basic Title IX policy (Richards, 2016, p. 20). This compliance culture—or lack thereof—illustrates a previously mentioned issue with the American response to sexual violence in universities: Tani (2017), citing Leon’s study of the 2014 Office for Civil Rights investigation of University of Delaware, points out that American universities may have the structure in place to facilitate effective responses to sexual violence, yet limited or no institutional commitment to cultural change (p. 1890). Furthermore, beyond failure to comply with the system lie issues with the system itself. These critiques point to how such a punitive model results in a ‘zero-sum game’ between the rights of the accused versus the rights of the complainant and how the policy’s rape mythology imported from criminal law hurts victims/survivors (Hartmann, 2015, p. 314, 294; USVreact, 2018, p. 9).

The English approach

Conversely, the recommendations set out in UUK’s (2016) Changing the Culture report focus on facilitating cultural change through the creation of streamlined reporting, recording, and support processes. The Changing the Culture report highlighted that some universities are responding, but these responses are not centralised and there is not yet an outlet for sharing best practice across the UK (2016, p. 5). Based on responses from 60 of their member universities, UUK found that the majority did not have dedicated policies in place to respond to sexual violence, as this was often included under an umbrella policy for harassment and bullying (2016, p. 27). Under-reporting of sexual violence and the lack of reporting and recording infrastructure were common issues among respondents (UUK, 2016, p. 28). Despite the absence of internal reporting resources, however, many universities had developed working partnerships in their local communities with police and crisis centres (UUK, 2016, p. 29). UUK formed recommendations based on recurrent themes in university responses which include: achieve senior leadership buy-in, implement an institution-wide approach, work to prevent violence through forming a zero-tolerance culture and using bystander intervention training, create a system to centrally record all reports and make sure that there is a clear path to disclosure and support, create or strengthen partnerships in the local community (NHS, rape crisis centres, etc.), and ensure best practice sharing (2016, p. 58-59).

While Phipps and Smith (2012) caution us against “mobilising simplistic dichotomies” (p. 366) in comparing English and American responses to sexual violence in universities, the themes of infrastructure and commitment offer an opportunity to understand why two countries with relatively similar student make-up and rates of violence have taken such different approaches. The United States may have a developed infrastructure for response, yet the presence of this framework and the federal sanctions it can impose then make universities more concerned with compliance than with addressing and redressing sexual violence. On the other hand, without national legislation, England has the opportunity to discuss what supporting victims/survivors and preventing sexual violence looks like without universities facing national sanctions if their response does not fit a certain mould. The English guidance generated does not fixate on infrastructure aside from what will help students—easily accessible reporting and support pathways. In reviewing the American and English systems, we come to understand that merely having formal structures in place to respond to sexual violence in universities does not lead to broader cultural change, and that lacking standardised policies does not mean universities are not working to end sexual violence. The absence of standardised procedures in England may contribute to issues of accountability when universities act negligently, yet the United States shows us that the mere presence of a uniform response strategy does not guarantee that all universities will implement this even under the threat of losing federal funding. We then must grapple with the idea that change may not be best achieved through the creation of punitive umbrella policies that aim to foster compliance out of fear, rather than compassion for student victims/survivors. As someone who was heavily involved in Title IX activism throughout her undergraduate education in New Jersey, this idea has not been easy for me to confront.

What can we learn from this?
What then can we learn from a comparative framing of sexual violence response in universities? I am still very much in the process of finding out. The preliminary findings from my literature review suggest at the very least that a comparative framing would help us envision radically different options for response, that we do not have to remain committed to one way of responding because that is how it has been done. In a precarious moment for Title IX—thanks to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos buying into the mythology of rampant false accusations (McNamara, 2018; “False Reporting Overview,” 2012) and subsequently making it more difficult for victims/survivors to find justice (United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2017)—it is now more important than ever for Americans to remember that there are possibilities for achieving justice beyond a system that can be weaponised against the very people it was designed to protect. It is also important for England, in working towards a national response framework, to take into account the critiques of the United States’ system when considering it for possible adaptation. Ultimately, it is my hope that my doctoral thesis will help to identify how universities in the United States and England may engage in policy borrowing to better support university student victims/survivors of sexual violence.



Adams, R. (2017, September 28). Almost half of all young people in England go on to higher education. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Ali, R. (2011, April 4). Dear Colleague Letter.
Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Townsend, R., Lee, H., Bruce, C., & Thomas, G. (2015). Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. The Association of American Universities. Retrieved from
False Reporting Overview. (2012). Retrieved July 11, 2018, from
Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice.
Fisher, B. S., & Wilkes, A. R. P. (2003). A Tale of Two Ivory Towers: A Comparative Analysis of Victimization Rates and Risks between University Students in the United States and England. The British Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 525–545.
Griffin, V. W., Pelletier, D., Hayden Griffin, O., & Sloan, J. J. (2017). Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act: SaVing Lives or SaVing Face? American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, 42(2), 401–425.
Hartmann, A. (2015). Reworking Sexual Assault Response on University Campuses: Creating A Rights-Based Empowerment Model to Minimize Institutional Liability. Journal of Law & Policy, 48, 287–320.
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Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., & Warner, T. D. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study (No. 0209487). National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from
McNamara, B. (2018, March 12). Betsy DeVos Said She Doesn’t Know Whether False Rape Allegations Outnumber Real Ones. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from
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Richards, T. N. (2016). An Updated Review of Institutions of Higher Education’s Responses to Sexual Assault: Results From a Nationally Representative Sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 886260516658757.
Tani, K. M. (2017). An Administrative Right to Be Free from Sexual Violence: Title IX Enforcement in Historical and Institutional Perspective. Duke Law Journal, 66(8), 1847–1903.
United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2017, September). Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct. Retrieved from
Universities UK. (2016). Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.
USVreact. (2018). Training to Respond to Sexual Violence at European Universities: Final Report of the USVreact Project. Retrieved from


“It puts you in a place like a bottle”: Stigma, shame, and gender based violence

By Carol Ballantine

I’m fascinated by stigma. It’s the way that social judgements, seemingly innocuous and even random in themselves, can determine the whole lives of individuals. Stigma increases HIV infections, it isolates people who need human support, it results in cruel discrimination. One Kenyan woman put it powerfully, in a conversation with researchers for the NGO Trócaire:

Stigma … it puts you in a place like in a bottle. You don’t know how you can get out of it… It’s like something that kills you slowly. It follows you everywhere you go ‘til it finishes you.”[1]

We all do it. We all stigmatise without even realising it. Identifying stigma is the first step to taking away its power.


Stigma refers to the social judgement that particular characteristics or attributes are undesirable. The first theorist of the subject, Erving Goffman, referred to stigma as a “spoiled social identity”. This captures the sense that, owing to public judgement, one’s entire identity can be devalued – in the eyes of others, and even in one’s own eyes.

Stigmas attach to all sorts of attributes: behaviours; conditions; diseases and beliefs. The subject most closely associated with stigma in the popular mind, particularly in countries like Ireland, is mental health and mental illness. Certain diseases are also heavily stigmatised, such as HIV, leprosy and TB.

My research is beginning to look at how we can understand the impact of gender based violence by understanding the stigma that goes along with it.

In recent decades, the importance of stigma has been well established in the field of public health. Epidemiologists aim to understand how human interactions and behaviours affect health and disease conditions. Stigma is a crucial piece of this puzzle. Stigma prevents people from accessing the medical and psycho-social services that they need to overcome their afflictions. For example, estimates indicate that nearly two thirds of all Americans with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek help. This is particularly problematic when it comes to infectious diseases. In the case of HIV, not only does pervasive stigma prevent people from seeking medical care, it also prevents people from disclosing their HIV status to others, or discussing HIV with others. This tendency to conceal and avoid mention of the virus enables new infections and confounds attempts to control transmission.


If we are ever to address large-scale public health issues like mental illness and HIV (among many others), the importance of tackling stigma is well established. But that’s not the only – nor even the most important – reason to address stigma. Because stigma has a corrosive effect on individual lives. It causes isolation and exclusion, the loss of family and friends at the very time when they’re most needed. It can cause self-doubt, self-blame, self-hatred. In the course of my work, I’ve spent time with lots of people who are (among other things) HIV positive, in Ireland and Honduras, Kenya and Ethiopia. When they’ve talked about their diagnosis, they’ve unfailingly talked about the stigma that goes with it. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is a symptom of the disease. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is worse than the disease.

Stigma and Gender Based Violence

I am working on a research project investigating the social impacts of gender based violence (GBV) against women. The term GBV refers to violence directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex[2]. While women, men, boys and girls can be the victims of gender-based violence, women and girls are the main victims. Like mental illness or HIV, violence against women is a global public health concern, since it is the cause of both morbidity and mortality in women of all ages. It’s also a global human rights concern: women worldwide can’t live their lives to the fullness of their potential because of physical, sexual, financial and emotional insecurity and trauma.


Stigma is relevant when it comes to understanding gender based violence: both how the violence continues to be perpetrated, and how it impacts people.

Recent analysis of data across thirty low income countries showed that on average, only 6% of women exposed to intimate partner violence approached formal services such as health care or police.

While there are many reasons for women to avoid formal services, one of these is definitely a sense of judgement, of blame, and anticipation of gossip and social rejection. In one study, twenty so-called battered women from Israel discussed their feelings of self-stigma. Here is one woman speaking:

“In fact, why doesn’t a woman complain? She is ashamed that people would find out that she is beaten. She is ashamed to go to the police. This shame is one of the reasons that she doesn’t complain.” [3]

And another woman who was assaulted, from the same Kenya study as before:

“I fear that I will tell them [neighbours and friends] and they will start talking about me and laughing. I do not like that because they will know what is happening in my home and they will go around telling everyone about it.”[4]

We are living in a moment where this stigma is beginning to be recognised and named: that’s why concepts like rape culture and victim blaming are becoming commonplace in some communities and spaces. But stigma is a sticky phenomenon, and shifting it means seeing its many differing dimensions.

Complicating the public stigma that attaches to GBV is the shame that is an almost constant state for many women. Shame is not the same thing as stigma: it is a painful emotion involving a negative self-judgement that affects the whole self. Stigma produces shame, and this can be the most insidious impact of stigma, as it turns a person against herself. And there is good evidence that shame affects women more than men, and differently to men. For Freud, shame was “the feminine emotion par excellence”. Sandra Bartky argues that for many women it may be “the pervasive affective taste of a life”. Triggered by stigmatising public attitudes and gendered emotional dispositions (that is, emotional dispositions that are patriarchally constructed and shaped), shame can take hold on women. It silences them. It makes them complicit in their own victimisation. It enables the abuse and the violence to continue.

As with all other stigmatised conditions, stigma related to GBV is important for at least two reasons. First, for the undeniable impact that it has on individuals: the limitations that it places on their own physical and mental health (through failing to seek help, and loss of self-esteem) and through the isolation and mistreatment it often provokes, the gossip, cruelty and exclusion. And second, for the insidious role that stigma plays in enabling violence to continue. Stigma keeps women in abusive situations, blaming themselves for the violence, or fearing the judgement of others if they leave. It tells perpetrators that they are less than fully responsible, that the victim bears at least some, if not all of the blame. Of course stigma is not the only thing that holds gender based violence in place – but it’s a powerful contributor.

Stigma is a profoundly conservative force, policing the norms that are open to discussion. Because it operates internally in the psyche of stigmatised individuals, it often militates against solidarity, organising and collective action. And yet it works the other way too.

At times, the best reaction to having a label applied to you without your consent is to embrace the label, claim it, and use it as the basis of new forms of solidarity. This has happened to good effect with HIV – though nobody could say that the stigma has evaporated as a result. Stigmatised identities are often reactive and defensive (who would choose to define themselves as a survivor of domestic violence unless they felt they had to?). The support that develops within the community can stand in marked contrast to the continuing derision outside it. The responsibility for shifting the norms, attitudes and beliefs that inform stigma can’t be left to the victims of stigma alone.

Researching GBV stigma

My PhD research is looking at the impacts of gender-based violence, and the role of stigma and shame in amplifying and multiplying these impacts. One element of stigma is that, while it attaches to GBV almost everywhere, the dynamic is very different depending on the norms that prevail, the ways that people interact, and people’s material conditions and values. In my research, I’m focusing on migrant women living in Ireland. They already confront stigma and shame related to their migrant status, and often their status as women in their own communities. I want to know about how gender based violence has affected their lives, and the role stigma has played in this.


In spite of a critical absence of comprehensive data on experiences of violence, small studies emerge and shed light on this situation, as I hope my research will. This year Wezesha, an African diaspora organisation, released a damning report on the experiences of migrant women affected by conflict living in Ireland. The report is full of disturbing detail about migrant lives in Ireland, and the layers of trauma, victimisation and strength that emerge don’t fit in any easy frameworks. Nonetheless, the ring of stigma and shame sounds clearly through the noise:

“Women have even expressed how they are fearful of speaking with their doctor about their past experience of trauma, depression and stress saying that once it is entered into hospital records it will impact on their possibility of accessing jobs in the future. They indicated that all they want is to move on with their lives.” The threat of social opprobrium, holding people down.

I plan to investigate lifetime experiences of GBV among a small group of migrants in Ireland. I want to examine the ways that GBV has affected their lives and their communities, and the part that stigma and shame have played.


Spending four years on a research study feels a bit like self- indulgence. Like any apprenticeship, the deepest implications are personal. I am meeting myself in new ways, and of course encountering the ways in which this line of enquiry was prompted by my own extreme proclivity to shame.

I see the insidious power of stigma everywhere – and the dazzling strength of shamelessness.

While activists have done an excellent job of popularising the idea of victim-blaming, using a public health model to understand the patterns and effects of stigma enables us to view it clearly as a policy issue. This study will contribute to an understanding of how violence is experienced by marginalised individuals and the interventions that can help promote prevention, protection and punishment. Here in Ireland, we don’t have detailed knowledge about gender based violence (who is most affected, where and when?) – largely because of savage cuts to all but frontline services (the last comprehensive study on sexual violence in Ireland, for example, was conducted in 2002, when levels of migration into Ireland were far lower than they currently are, and migrants were not even included among the marginalised groups identified). This qualitative study will give an insight into one largely under-served group in the population, their experiences and the barriers they face to seeking help.

Beyond my small study cohort, I hope to show that stigma has an impact of its own on people’s lives, an impact that is additional to and separate from the violence itself. In as much as violence prevents people from taking part in community life, I want to examine the role that stigma plays. This has implications for the priority that we give to eliminating gender based violence – and for the ways in which we do so. I’m hoping that I can also shed more light on the seemingly intractable persistence of gender based violence, in every society in the world.


[1] From an unpublished research study by Jessica Penwell Barnett and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, 2013

[2] This definition is drawn from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

[3] Buchbinder and Eisikovits, 2003

[4] Barnett and Matcika-Tyndale, 2013