Author: Dr Holly Taylor-Dunn
Dr Holly Taylor-Dunn has been working in the field of violence and abuse for over 19 years. Holly initially worked for the police as a Domestic Abuse Officer before working for a large Women’s Aid organisation, managing a number of community-based projects. Holly’s PhD evaluated the criminal justice response to victims of domestic violence and sought to understand the impact of Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs) on prosecution outcomes within a Specialist Domestic Violence Court (SDVC). Holly is the Course Lead for the Master’s Degree in Understanding Domestic and Sexual Violence at the University of Worcester and she recently led a Home Office funded project in which victims of stalking and harassment were interviewed about their experiences of reporting to the police.
Tackling sexual harassment, sexual violence and domestic abuse in Higher Education – valuable lessons for primary, secondary and further education settings.
The issues of sexual harassment, sexual violence and domestic abuse on University campuses have received increasing recognition over the last ten years thanks to campaigns by the National Union of Students (NUS, 2010, Cambridge, 2014). In 2014, Public Health England commissioned a review to assess the international evidence regarding ‘what works’ in preventing these problems in a University context. The review found that Bystander Intervention programmes, where students are empowered to become ‘active’ bystanders and challenge the social norms that facilitate and condone problematic behaviour, are the most effective strategy (Public Health England, 2016, Fenton & Mott, 2017).
In the UK, the first Bystander Intervention programme was designed by the University of the West of England – called the Intervention Initiative. Universities were encouraged to deliver this programme as an effective way of preventing sexual harassment, sexual violence and domestic abuse (Universities UK, 2016). At the University of Worcester, we have offered this course since 2015 and have delivered it to over 300 students during this time. The feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive – with many commenting that it should be mandatory, and others suggesting it should be delivered in schools.
It has become increasingly apparent that our students arrive at University without an understanding of how the law defines sexual assault. When we discuss legal definitions and give an example of someone being groped in a nightclub, students are surprised to learn this is a criminal offence – they are surprised because it is so common and young women in particular describe developing strategies to keep each other safe. In addition, there are clearly ambiguities regarding their understanding of consent, especially when both parties have been consuming alcohol.
It is not surprising then, that if young men and women do not have a clear understanding about what the law says concerning their rights, how are they expected to seek help if something were to happen to them? One female student explained how empowered she felt doing the course – she was in a Nightclub and a young man groped her bottom – she turned around and said ‘Do you realise that is sexual assault?’ The man apologised and walked away.
If we want to prevent sexual harassment, sexual violence and domestic abuse, we need to educate our children as to what rights they have over their own bodies, what the law says is acceptable and what they should do if they, or someone they know, experiences such abuse. But more than this, we need to encourage our children and young people to take a stand when they see something that is not ok – this is the essence of bystander intervention – notice an event, recognise it is a problem, feel responsible for doing something about it, and have the necessary skills to act (Fenton & Mott, 2017). Unless we address all aspects of this within our education system, we are never going to challenge the social norms that condone sexual harassment, sexual violence and domestic abuse.
Cambridge study (2014) : CUSU (Cambridge University Students' Union) (2014). Cambridge Speaks Out. Cambridge: CUSU Women's Campaign. Online at
Fenton, R. A., & Mott, H. L. (2017). The bystander approach to violence prevention: Considerations for implementation in Europe. Psychology of violence, 7(3), 450.
NUS study (2010) : NUS (National Union of Students) (2011) (2nd Ed.). Hidden Marks. London: NUS. Online at http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/NUS_hidden_marks_report_2nd_edition_web.pdf
Public Health England (2016) A review of evidence for bystander intervention to prevent sexual and domestic violence in universities. Online at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/515634/Evidence_review_bystander_intervention_to_prevent_sexual_and_domestic_violence_in_universities_11April2016.pdf
Universities UK (2016). Changing the culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. Online at: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/changing-the-culture-final-report.aspx