Universities are not dens of sexual harassment

If you’re a woman starting a degree in 2017, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re about to embark on the most dangerous three years of your life. Talk of sexual harassment being at ‘epidemic levels’ is rife, while students’ unions across the UK continually roll out policies and procedures to protect women from potential harm. And now the University of Cambridge is recruiting a full-time sexual assault and harassment adviser.

The new post will ‘offer a source of specialist emotional and practical support to students following sexual harassment or sexual assault’. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound unreasonable to want to support students who have been victims of serious violent assault. But that is not what this new post actually represents. Rather, it represents a further extension of the campus sexual-harassment myth.

It is a myth built on dubious stats. Over the past few years, for example, there have been numerous surveys attempting to document women’s experiences at university. And almost without fail, they all claim that women are at huge risk of sexual harassment.

In 2014, the NUS reported that almost one third of students surveyed had experienced ‘unwanted sexual comments’, while more than a third of women students said they had faced unwelcome sexual advances – defined as inappropriate touching and groping. Similarly, at the University of Cambridge, a survey led by the SU Women’s Campaign and Varsity, the student newspaper, reported that almost half of students had been groped, pinched or touched, and 55 per cent of students said they had been made to feel uncomfortable by comments of a sexual nature.

The sexual-harassment crisis has been hugely talked up, and no survey really gives a clear indication of whether women are actually at increased risk of sexual assault or harassment on campus. For a start, the survey participants are self-selecting – they are mainly people who have an interest in the idea of the prevalence of sexual harrasment on campus. And second, the definitions of sexual harassment have expanded so much that almost anything, from banter or jokes to salacious pop songs or unwanted chat-up lines, can fit under the sexual-harassment umbrella.

Given the focus on sexual harassment – its relentless construction as a serious problem – it’s hardly a surprise that Cambridge is taking on a full-time sexual harassment adviser. But while it may not be a surprise, it is not good for women. It could easily put off a lot of young women from going to university. And even those who are still prepared to go to such a frightening place are then being encouraged to paint everyday experiences as sexual harassment, and to see their fellow students as potential abusers.

Recruiting a ‘sexual assault and harassment adviser’ only cements this idea in young people’s minds that students, and particularly women, are always potentially at harm at university. No longer is serious sexual violence considered rare; students are made to believe that they can expect to be victims of sexual harassment from the moment they set foot on campus.

University is supposed to be a challenging, liberating chapter in young people’s lives. It’s about pushing boundaries and forging new relationships. The only danger women face on campus today is being made to believe they’re only one wolf-whistle away from sexual abuse. It’s time to stop the panic about campus sexual harassment.

Emily Dinsmore is a writer.

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