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6 things to know about sexual harassment at university or college

Photo of female student holding a backpack.

In recent years we have seen more women coming forward about their experience of sexual harassment, and university and college students and staff haven’t been the exception.

Only last year, Channel 4 uncovered the increase in reports of sexual harassment in UK universities and a survey by Brook (a sexual health and wellbeing charity) found that almost half of the female university students they interviewed had experienced inappropriate touching.

So, what can you do if you or someone you know has been sexually harassed at college or university? We have compiled a short list of useful things to know about sexual harassment and steps you can take.

1. Sexual harassment can happen in many different ways

Sexual harassment is generally defined as unwanted sexual behaviour that one person commits against another. In most cases, it is committed by men against women.

When we talk about sexual harassment, often the first thing that comes to mind is being touched inappropriately. However, there are different ways in which sexual harassment can happen.

Getting unwanted sexual texts or emails; being forced to watch sexual images or having someone share sexual images of you or another person (known as image-based sexual abuse); or even when someone asks you to go out with them and continues to do so even after you have said ‘no’: all of these are ways in which someone can be sexually harassed.

If someone is making you, or someone you know, feel uncomfortable and you suspect that it’s sexual harassment, there are things you can do.

2. Sexual harassment online is abuse

During the pandemic, many university and college classes are moving online. However, the fact that we are not physically sharing a space doesn't mean that abuse can't happen or that it is less serious.

Online sexual harassment can take many forms and these are some ways in which it can happen online:

  • Sending you inappropriate sexual messages or images through online platforms (social media, online chats, video conferencing programmes)
  • Stealing your personal images and threatening to publish them online
  • Making fake accounts to harass you on your social media channels or to impersonate you
  • Joining your video calls without consent or permission

If you are experiencing sexual harassment online, these guides have helpful information about options to keep yourself safe:

If something doesn't feel right, it is very important that you listen to yourself and get support. At the end of this blog you will find a list of services you can contact for support.

3. If you are in immediate danger, call the police

If you are concerned for your own safety or someone else’s call the police as soon as you can by dialling 999.

4. Get support from your university

Universities and colleges have a duty to keep students and staff safe. This includes having services available to ensure their wellbeing.

If someone is sexually harassing you, contact your university or college’s student services or student union. They should be able to put you in touch with services that can support you. If you are worried that someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment, you can ask for details of support services and pass them on to your friend.

The kind of support available will depend on the situation and the needs of the person being sexually harassed. Some of the things that support agencies can help with include reporting the situation to college or university authorities, reporting to the police, getting emotional support, and working to improve your (or your friend’s) safety.

5. You have rights, find out what they are

Everyone has a right to be able to study and work in a safe environment, free from sexual harassment.

At the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre we have a legal helpline specifically for women experiencing sexual harassment. Our solicitor can give you information about legal steps you can take to stop the harassment.

Call: 08088 010 789 (Monday to Friday, see opening times here).

6. Listen, believe and offer support to survivors of sexual harassment

Disclosing an experience of sexual harassment —or any other form of violence or abuse— is never an easy process. Each person and situation is unique and it can take some time before deciding what to do.

Coming forward is already a big step, so when someone discloses an experience of abuse or violence, make sure to listen, allow them to express their feelings and let them know you believe them.

You can also let them know about other support available. In addition to university/college support services, sexual harassment survivors can also contact:

  • National Stalking Helpline (open daily, 9:30am - 4pm and Weds open 1pm - 4pm)
    Call: 0808 802 0300
    You can also fill out their contact form.

Final recommendation

If you’re thinking of reporting to the police, this guide explains the process and what to expect.

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08088 010 789

COVID-19 UPDATE: All our helplines are open as usual.

Legal advice

Monday 2 - 5 pm
Tuesday 6 - 8 pm
Wednesday 11 am - 2 pm
Thursday 5 - 8 pm
Friday 10 am - 1 pm

Advocacy support

Tuesday 11 am - 2 pm