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The University of Stirling's whole university approach to tackling sexual violence

A recent YouGov poll of adults between 18-24 found that almost three quarters of young people have witnessed sexual harassment on a night out. Of this group, 63% of women and 26% of men reported that they had been on the receiving end of this behaviour. With record numbers of young people going to university, this issue is naturally of concern to universities, and their students and staff. Indeed, the reported prevalence of sexual violence on our university campuses resulted in Universities UK publishing their Changing the Culture (2016) guidance to assist universities in addressing this issue. HEFCE have since invested £2.45m into a variety of university schemes that are putting these recommendations into action. But the YouGov poll raises an interesting point regarding bystanders to this behaviour, which Graham Goulden – an expert in delivering training in preventative approaches to sexual violence – explains:

“Where we have witnesses, we have assets. Assets who need options and safe ways to support [those affected] and challenge [this behaviour]. Many see these issues but fail to act.”

A university that is utilising its assets, by engaging its students and staff to help address this societal problem, is the University of Stirling. Earlier this year, the University launched their #IsThisOk? campaign, with the purpose of encouraging students and staff to think critically about the causes and impact of sexual violence in all its forms, to equip them with the skills to intervene if they witness this behaviour, and to highlight the support options available for all. The premise behind the campaign is: “Whoever you are, whatever your role, ask yourself #IsThisOk? – if it’s not ok, take action.” This is part of a wider strategy that has been developed between the University of Stirling and the University of Stirling Students’ Union, to prevent and tackle sexual violence and misconduct, working in partnership with Police Scotland, Stirling and District Women’s Aid, and members of the local Gender Based Violence Partnership Group.

As part of the strategy, a cohort of University of Stirling students are being trained as #IsThisOk? workshop facilitators, enabling them to facilitate workshops for their fellow students on preventative approaches to sexual violence. To deliver this training, Stirling have worked closely with Graham Goulden, drawing on his experience as a Chief Inspector with the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, and over 30 years as a police officer with Police Scotland. As part of his bystander intervention programme, Graham provides a day of training for Stirling students that involves working through exercises, reflecting on attitude statements, participating in role-play activities, and watching a video that plays out the same scenario in different ways, illustrating how different active bystanders can intervene to alter the course of events. Students leave this training day with a clearer idea of issues such as:

  • Definitions of sexual violence, misconduct, and consent;

  • The scale of sexual violence in the UK and at universities;

  • The University's policies and protocols on responding to disclosures of sexual violence;

  • Safe ways to intervene as a bystander to this behaviour, and;

  • The support available for students and staff.

We spoke to Head of Student Support Services, Jill Stevenson, who is leading Stirling’s work to address sexual harassment and abuse, and she explained why the #IsThisOk? training is so important:

"A key part of the training is encouraging people to challenge deeply-held perceptions and tackle the myths. We often hear that many allegations [of sexual harassment and assault] are false, when in fact statistics suggest that no more than 3% are found to be false; no more than in relation to any other crime. Victim-blaming myths are exacerbated by how sexual violence is portrayed in the media. There is unfortunately still a great deal of focus on victims’ clothing, their behaviour and drinking habits when in fact the focus should be on the behaviour of the perpetrator and the need to stop sexual violence happening in the first place. This culture continues to deter people from reporting incidents or seeking support, and our #IsThisOk? campaign aims to change that."

The University of Stirling will also shortly collaborate with five other institutions – Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh Napier University, the University of Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian University, and St Andrews University – to strengthen the university response to disclosures of sexual violence. Each institution will send one or two members of staff to participate in a six-day SMLO (Sexual Misconduct Liaison Officer) training, run by Lime Culture, alongside a team of University of Stirling staff. The intention is to establish a dedicated pool of staff who can provide guidance to those who have been affected by sexual violence, and to create a multi-institutional community of practice in addressing sexual violence in a HE setting, enabling the group to provide peer support for one another and to share good practice.

What is your university doing to tackle sexual violence? We would like to hear from you.

Notes: Section 6 of the Student Harassment and Sexual Assault Instrument of the ProtectED Code of Practice requires members to develop a PSWP (ProtectED Safety and Wellbeing Partnership), working across internal departments and with external agencies, experts and other HEIs, to share experiences and best practice, and pool resources.

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