Cambridge University received 173 anonymous reports of sexual misconduct in nine months

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Trust in universities’ ability to safeguard students and staff from sexual abuse will remain low until reports of sexual misconduct are in triple figures, according to Graham Towl, former chief psychologist for the Ministry of Justice.

The University of Cambridge has now passed that point, with 173 reports received through our anonymous reporting tool between its introduction in May 2017 and 31 January 2018. The start of an awareness campaign against sexual misconduct called Breaking the Silence in October 2017 prompted the second largest spike in reports.

Several other universities have introduced similar anonymous reporting tools, such as the University of Manchester, but Cambridge is the first to publish such a high number of reports.

We expected high numbers, and view it as a metric of success. It appears victims have confidence in our promise that these figures will be used to judge the nature and scale of sexual misconduct affecting students and staff, and to act on it accordingly.

Under-reporting of sexual misconduct is a problem generally, not just in universities. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre in the US, more than 90% of those who were sexually assaulted on campus did not report it. The charity Rape Crisis describes the numbers in terms of a pyramid. The wide base is the total number of incidents, reports of incidents are in the middle and at the tip are the few that result in convictions.

Universities must step up

A number of recent high profile cases of acquittal have raised significant concerns about prosecution practices relating to disclosure of evidence. They also show the fundamental importance of the rule of law: the criminal justice system must be fair and must be seen to be fair.

But the media coverage of these cases may mean victims of sexual misconduct will be less likely to report what has happened to them to the police – and so other agencies will need to respond. Universities have a particular responsibility for their own students who have been affected by sexual misconduct, but this requires them to be able to identify and then provide support to the students who need it.

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The challenge is that one or two complaints a year do not give a university much information with which to formulate a response to the wider problem. Through the anonymous reporting tool, we now have a large number of Cambridge voices who have reported the issues they’ve faced. Using this data, we can start to measure the impact of initiatives and campaigns such as Breaking the Silence. But this data is anonymous, and some of it will be historic.

It supports our belief that we have a significant problem involving sexual misconduct – what we now need to ensure is that those who have been affected receive the support and guidance they need.

The early signs of the impact of Breaking the Silence are encouraging. Before the campaign, 52% of those reporting recent incidents thought nothing would be done if they made a complaint. Following the launch, that has dropped to 30%. Clearly, there is work still to do, but the campaign’s message that those who report will be supported and action can be taken is starting to have an impact.

Why anonymity works for some

As part of our evaluation of the campaign, we held a series of focus groups. I was struck by one student’s comment in particular. She said the #MeToo campaign put people under unfair pressure to disclose, adding that, to her, it was wrong that victims of sexual misconduct were being encouraged to “parade their pain” in the national news.

Anonymous reporting can help survivors’ voices be heard without their rawest experiences being made public in any way. It gives them a voice in a way that is free of the fear of consequences, but also free from accusations that complaints are vexatious as neither perpetrator nor victim can be named. For some, this may be sufficient. For others, they may want action to be taken.

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When speaking to our staff who support students affected by sexual misconduct, all describe students who do not want formally to report to the authorities; who do not want others to know; who do not want to have to relive their experience. These students feel there is no benefit to them in reporting, and they are fearful of the reactions of their friends or the perpetrator if they do so.

Without anonymous reporting options there are no opportunities for these silenced voices to be heard. And with anonymous reporting, these students may start to have confidence that they can come forward and be heard in person and be given the emotional support, advice and guidance they might need.

Challenging sexual misconduct is not only the right thing to do for the safety and well-being of staff and students. Universities are in a unique position to instil a zero tolerance approach to misconduct in their students which they can take with them into the future.

Graham Virgo, Professor of English Private Law; Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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