Book extract – Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education: A Good Practice Guide

Over the past decade, universities have recognised that they have a duty to address sexual violence on campus and ensure students can enjoy a safe learning environment. However, many students still suffer sexual misconduct that marrs their lives long after graduation. Tackling this, say Durham University’s Clarissa J Humphreys and Graham J Towl, is just a matter of priorities. And it all starts with believing…

Believing a disclosure is considered international best practice in higher education (USVreact, 2016). Beyond higher education, police in various countries, the United States military and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) start by believing disclosures (Lonsway & Archambault, 2016).

Based on our experience in this challenging field, we know that for some this may potentially be controversial. Many will simply see it as axiomatic that those reporting sexual violence should be believed, but others may disagree with this operating premise.

The ‘b-word’ (believe) may meet with concerns and possible resistance. However, individuals responding to disclosures can and should believe those making a report to them about having been subjected to sexual violence. We would invite those with concerns about this approach to take into account some of the arguments that we outline below which we hope are helpful for all those working in this challenging area.

First, the individual receiving the first disclosure automatically has a conflict of interest and will not be engaged as an investigator or discipline decision-maker with regard to the individual accused, ie the Responding Party. As soon as someone receives a disclosure, they need to be separate from ‘due process’. Therefore, that person is able to believe the Reporting Party because they will not be involved in areas where, through believing, they are biasing a potential process which is set up to establish the veracity of the disclosure.

Second, from a support lens, employees involved in supporting Reporting Parties can believe disclosures, eg counselling staff. The institution should not require proof or an investigation to offer support to a survivor or even to consider reasonable adjustments or interim support measures. Institutions would (rightly) not require death certificates when students report the loss of a loved one. The student is believed and provided with appropriate support. The support the institution can provide sits somewhat separate from the discipline side where evidence is required to find misconduct. However, importantly, that would be dealt with by different staff/investigators.

When survivors are silenced, risks of perpetration are greater because there are no deterrents. Perpetrators are likely to tell their victims that no one will believe them

Reasons why believing helps the institution

Institutions that have a culture where survivors are not believed will be much less likely to receive disclosures. When survivors are silenced, the institution will not know what is happening in the community, and it will continue unaddressed. When survivors are silenced, risks of perpetration are greater because there are no deterrents. Perpetrators are likely to tell their victims that no one will believe them. Laura Bates frames this clearly stating: “One of the saddest things about the silencing of women through shame, normalization, dismissal, disbelief and blame is that it has become so common that it is used as a controlling tool by abusers themselves… As long as we as a society continue to belittle and dismiss women’s accounts, disbelieve and question their stories, and blame them for their own assault, we will continue to provide perpetrators with this powerful and effective threat.”

On the other hand, if the institution has a culture where survivors are believed, a common barrier to disclosure will have been addressed. The institution will have more data to understand the issues in the community and will be able to use targeted preventive measures. Perpetrators may fear being caught because they know survivors will be much more likely to speak out and be heard. The choice to believe survivors when they disclose makes an institution safer.

Yet, believing a disclosure is not about the institutional gains at all, although those are beneficial in themselves.

Reasons why believing helps victim-survivors

If a victim-survivor is not believed during a first disclosure, this may have a detrimental effect on their recovery and stop them from seeking help (Campbell, Wasco, Ahrens, Sefl, & Barnes, 2001). Clark and Pino compellingly state, “Survivors who have a negative experience with police, who are not believed by officials at their school, or who are blamed even by their friends often describe the responses of unsupportive individuals as almost a second rape. That betrayal of a trusted institution compounds the already existing trauma.” (2016, p.84)

The responder should not make assumptions about what happened, did not happen or should have happened

If the survivor receives a negative response, they can experience delayed recovery and are at higher risk for developing physiological and psychological symptoms, including posttraumatic stress disorder (Campbell et al., 2001). The experience of re-traumatisation or ‘second rape’ will impact their mental health, physical health and their academic progress. They may withdraw from the institution and may even forgo a degree altogether, thus having an impact on their future earnings. In comparison, by believing the survivor, the responder can increase that person’s likelihood of seeking support and entering into recovery with fewer physiological and psychological symptoms (Campbell et al., 2001).

What about false allegations?

This is a very common question we hear when discussing sexual violence in higher education. The responder to a disclosure is not responsible for determining if the incident occurred or not. Their only job is to provide an appropriate and supportive response to the Reporting Party signposting them to reporting and support options.

Statistically false allegations are thought to make up 2–10% of reports made to the police in the United Kingdom and in the United States (Ferguson & Malouff, 2016; Kelly, Lovett, & Regan, 2005; Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), with meta-analytic studies showing a false report rate to police of 5% (Ferguson & Malouff, 2016).

Studies that review false allegations use varied definitions and rely on police information where cases have found to be miscategorised as false reports, such as using that label when victims refuse to cooperate.

Sometimes cases included as ‘false allegations’ may not be ‘false’ but rather reflect a change of mind as to the level of confidence in the strength of the case to be supported in court. Recognising that sexual violence is reported at very low rates to begin with, the percentage of false allegations proportionately is a very small number compared to the estimated rates of sexual violence.

How to believe

Believing a disclosure may sometimes be difficult, as some stories, to the listener, may sound unbelievable. They may challenge the responder’s view of the world or cause them to question what they know about a colleague or student. Often, negative responses to a disclosure are more about the responder and their very human reaction to try to make sense of something, rather than a reflection of the victim-survivor’s statement. Responding to a disclosure should never be about the responder. The responder is simply performing a role to offer a positive and supportive signposting response. However, the reality is we all have automatic thoughts, some helpful, some less so. In order to respond appropriately to a disclosure, the responder has to remain focused on the victim-survivor and leave their own thoughts, morals, questions and feelings out of the picture.

The percentage of false allegations proportionately is a very small number compared to the estimated rates of sexual violence

Therefore, the responder should accept a disclosure without questioning it. Believe that what is shared is the Reporting Party’s version of what has happened. The responder does not need evidence, proof or corroboration. They are not part of the investigation or discipline process. The responder can validate the Reporting Party’s feelings and may wish to say, ‘I believe you,’ ‘I’m sorry this happened to you,’ or ‘It’s not your fault.’ The responder should not judge the survivor, their experience or their response.
The responder should not make assumptions about what happened, did not happen or should have happened.

This is an extract from Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education: A Good Practice Guide by Clarissa J Humphreys and Graham J Towl (2020, Emerald Publishing).

University Business readers can save 30% on a copy of the book by using code EMERALDUB20 when buying direct from the Emerald Bookstore:

“Sexual violence will manifest itself in different ways due to social distancing”
Q&A with authors Clarissa J Humphreys and Graham J Towl

What prompted the need for this book?

The idea for this book came from countless conversations with colleagues about the
absence of practical and detailed guidance on how to address issues of sexual violence in higher education (HE). We decided that in the absence of such guidance we would write them ourselves in
the hope that it would be of practical use for us, colleagues and the wider sector nationally and internationally. Early reviews indicate that we have achieved our initial goals.

What are the most common mistakes HE providers make when handling sexual violence disclosures?

First and foremost, university governing bodies and vice chancellors failing to prioritise (financial) investment in staff training to respond to disclosures. Second, especially in the absence of training, a failure to respond in a trauma-informed way and believe victim-survivors. A third common mistake is when staff try to take control and make decisions instead of empowering the person subjected to sexual violence to choose what to do next.

Do you think social distancing will affect incidences of sexual violence on campus?

Yes. We anticipate that sexual violence will manifest itself in different ways. For example, we would envisage increased online sexual misconduct and as demonstrated already during the ‘lockdown’ an increase in domestic abuse/violence.

Clarissa J Humphreys is the sexual misconduct prevention and response manager at Durham University. She is a practitioner and leading authority on addressing gender-based violence in higher education.

Graham J Towl is professor of forensic psychology at Durham University and visiting clinical professor at Newcastle University. He was pro-vice-chancellor (PVC) chair of the Sexual Violence Task Force at Durham University in 2015/2016 and is an international authority and speaker on the subject.

You might also like: University of Warwick apologises for ‘rape chat’ disciplinary failings

USVreact (2020, February). Training resources. Retrieved from
Lonsway, K.A., & Archambault, J. (2019b, September). Statement on trauma informed responses to sexual assault. End Violence Against Women International
Bates, L. (2014) Everyday Sexism. London: Simon & Schuster UK
Campbell, R., Wasco, S. M., Ahrens, C. E., Sefl, T., & Barnes, H. E. (2001). Preventing the ‘second rape:’ Rape survivors’ experiences with community service providers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 16, 1239 – 1259.
Ferguson, C.E., & Malouff, J.M. (2016). Assessing police classifications of sexual assuault reports: A meta-analysis of false reporting rate.
Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 45(5), 1185-1193
Kelly, L., Lovett, J., & Regan, L. (2005). A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases. Home Office Research Development and
Statistics Directorate.
Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S.C., & Cote, A.M. (2010). False allegations of sexual assault: An analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women, 16, 1318-1334.

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