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Bystander Training: Encouraging peer-to-peer support to tackle student sexual harassment

When DrinkAware released the results of its poll of student experiences on a night out, it added to an ever-growing body of evidence that points towards a serious problem with sexual harassment and assault at UK universities. This includes the NUS 'Hidden Marks' report findings that 68% of female students had experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment at university, and the Guardian's investigations into the 'scandalous' levels of sexual harassment and gender violence being perpetrated by university staff.

DrinkAware’s survey of over 2000 students aged 18-24, from universities throughout the UK, found that over half (54%) of female students in this age group had experienced sexual harassment (inappropriate touching, comments or abuse) whilst socialising – 51% reported this to be a regular occurrence on most, or all, nights out. The survey also found that 15% of male students had experienced inappropriate or unwanted sexual comments and touching.

The ProtectED Code of Practice specifically addresses this issue in indicator 3.1.2 of the Student Harassment and Sexual Assault Instrument. This indicator encourages partnership working between the university and external organisations and venues to help ensure that students are safe and well-supported on a night out, and to pool valuable knowledge and resources. The objective of 3.1.2. is to ensure that staff in venues frequented by students are trained to recognise and address harassment and sexual assault, and to assist vulnerable adults. It also responds to important recommendations made by the Universities UK Changing the Culture Taskforce Report (2016) to address violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. The report states that:

“Universities should embed a zero-tolerance approach across all institutional activities including outreach activities with schools and further education colleges, engagement with local bars and nightclubs […]” (p.58)

When the ProtectED team began looking into some of the good practice currently being undertaken to help address sexual harassment and assault in the night-time economy, they came across the work of UK police officer of over 30 years, Graham Goulden. For the last eight years, Graham has been a Chief Inspector working with the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, with a particular interest in preventative approaches to sexual violence and domestic abuse.

Through the Unit, Graham offers ‘bystander training’ for pub and club staff to help prevent people becoming victims of rape. The one-hour training session involves raising awareness of sexual violence and consent. Participants are encouraged to imagine issues of sexual harassment and assault occurring in their own lives, to people they know, allowing them to more realistically imagine their natural reactions. Graham then plays a dramatised film - entitled Who Are You? - that follows a female protagonist on a night out and shows the lead-up to her being sexually assaulted, but first, Graham issues a warning:

“It [the film] is uncomfortable viewing. It will make you feel uncomfortable and that’s good. Sometimes to move forward we have to be reminded of the ugliness of an issue.”

The film features a series of bystanders, including the woman’s friends, club staff, strangers and a flat mate who fail to intervene at points throughout the evening. The end result is that the man and woman arrive at the woman’s flat; by this time she is highly intoxicated. As we see the bedroom door close, it is clear that something very wrong is about to take place. At this point, the video replays, this time highlighting the various ‘red flag’ points at which bystanders could have stepped in. This leads into a discussion around safe, effective and often subtle ways to intervene. The training aims to empower individuals with the skills and confidence to support their customers (in the case of staff), friends and peers in a similar situation.

Watch the Who Are You? Bystander Training video

Back in 2010, Graham introduced the US leadership programme MVP into the UK high school setting. The Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme programme uses a creative bystander approach to support the prevention of abuse. He found that he was able to easily adapt this to a university setting, and begin encouraging peer-to-peer support between students:

“Students, like bar staff and door stewards, see things [on a night out]. I've always said that the public are the fourth emergency service, so we need to support them and give them the space to intervene. There’s lots of strong evidence suggesting that people are more likely to intervene if they feel their friends and peers are likely to intervene.”

One such collaboration was with St Andrews University where Graham helped to train student leaders to deliver training to new students around leadership and creating a sense of community. A key focus was on consent in sexual relationships and in engaging students in conversations on this subject, raising awareness and inspiring them to take a leadership role in supporting vulnerable fellow-students on a night out. Graham explains:

“There remains a lack of awareness around consent and when you put alcohol in the mix we have a perfect storm. Further, evidence from the US (David Lisak) points to a few students committing a lot of sexual assaults, using alcohol as the weapon. This highlights a need to engage the majority. Properly delivered bystander work can support this work.”

Graham is now taking his bystander training to the US, working with professional sports clubs and is planning a trip to LA later in the year to work with university campus police officers, helping to better equip them to intervene in and prevent potential sexual assaults.

For more information on Graham’s work, you can follow him on twitter @Graham_vru and read his blog where he writes regular articles on the prevention of sexual violence, and more widely on violence prevention in Scotland.

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