More than half of UK university students are being exposed to unwanted sexual behaviours such as inappropriate touching, explicit messages, rape, or being pressured into sexual acts, the largest study of its kind suggests – yet only 8% have reported an offence.
Worryingly, the survey of more than 5,600 university students across the UK found 1% of male students and 3% of female students had been raped, yet only a quarter (25%) of those students reported it.
In every category, women were more likely to say they’d experienced unwanted sexual behaviour than men. Nearly half of women (49%) said they were inappropriately touched, compared to 3% of men, but only 5% overall reported it. More than a quarter of women (26%) said they were sent unwanted sexually explicit messages, but only 3% reported it.
Sexual health charity Brook, who conducted the research, said the results show we are “failing young people” in regards to education around consent.
More than half (53%) of those who had experienced these unwanted sexual behaviours said another student was the perpetrator, and almost one third (30%) of incidents took place on campus.
The survey showed a significant gap in the understanding of what constitutes as sexual harassment and violence. Despite the fact more than half (56%) of those surveyed experienced unwanted sexual behaviours, only 15% realised these behaviours counted as sexual harassment.
In addition, students experienced confusion around sexual consent – especially when alcohol is involved – with only half (52%) understanding that it’s not possible to give consent if you are drunk.
This lack of awareness may be the inadequacies of relationships and sex education (RSE) in schools, according to the charity. The survey showed RSE is still heavily focused on STIs and pregnancy, with only half of those surveyed having received information on consent and under a third on harassment.
“If ever there was a reminder of the importance of high quality, comprehensive relationships and sex education in schools and universities – this is it,” said Helen Marshall, chief executive of Brook. “We are failing our young people if they don’t know that the law protects them from the unwanted behaviours they are experiencing.” RSE is currently being updated, and a new curriculum will be taught from 2020, the government has announced.
Marshall believes young people aren’t being empowered to navigate their sexual lives and relationships in healthy ways. “We will continue to passionately advocate for equality, sex positive relationships and sex education until we see a dramatic improvement in these sad trends,” she said.