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.

 

References

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