• Emma Getliffe

Open your eyes, it’s in your class

The hidden sexual harassment in universities

As we grow and try to become adults, we all choose diverse and beautiful paths for our lives. Some of us start working, others travel, but most of the youth studies. This is the path that I chose and I believed that university was all about freedom. That we should feel safe and fearless in the place that became our new home and which continues to see us growing. But how can we construct a life in universities in which we also experience sexual harassment?

I remember my first day at university. I was in another country far from my family, from my landmark and I felt confident, the most confident I have ever felt in my life. I had enough self-esteem to go out, have fun, meet people and adventure in a city and in a school that I did not know yet. But what if all of this confidence was taken away by a humiliating, violent and disgusting act? And what if this act was coming from an acquaintance, from a classmate or even a teacher who I have to be in contact with every day, for the rest of my course?

Personally, I can only imagine the mental and physical breakdown students who have experienced sexual harassment are suffering around the world. A survey conducted in 2017 by the Girlguiding movement showed that 64% of girls and women aged from 13 to 21 had experienced different kind of sexual harassment at school in the years priors.

Are schools and universities doing enough to protect their students?

Dr. Tiffany Page, a lecturer at Cambridge University and co-founder of the 1752 Group that fights to end sexual misconduct in higher education, spoke about UK universities:

“In practice, there has been little change in the higher education sector in the UK in terms of institutional accountability for sexual and gender-based violence since #MeToo and institutions have been slow to implement preventive solutions”.

A big majority of institutions do not disclose any reported incidents. 89% of colleges and universities reported zero incidents of rape according to the American Association of University Women. This might be due to the low number of students reporting sexual violence to school authorities or law enforcement, the procedural gaps in the manner of institutions to record incidents, or a reluctance of institutions to be associated with these programmes. In any case, universities each have a legal responsibility to monitor, disclose and respond to sexual misconduct.

Kim Churchers, the CEO of the AAUW, warns:

“When a school reports zero incidents of sexual harassment or violence, this raises a red flag: It does not square with what research shows about the prevalence of the problem. We need to ensure that schools do a better job of encouraging students to report any sexual harassment or violence — and of properly responding to and reporting those incidents”.

Universities should be the armour of their students as it should provide the space for the intellectual exchange between people in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Yet, as the #MeToo movement took off in 2017 encouraging women to speak up, female students around the world were still trying to overcome difficulties to denounce their harassers.

In a survey conducted by Metta Space where people had to respond on why they did not report a case of sexual harassment to the institution in which it occured, the answers of some students, that will stay anonymous for reasons of privacy, were shocking and outraging.

Some claimed:

“Nobody cares at my university, so what’s the point?”. While others did not report because of the fear of judgement by others: “Fear of not being understood or thought to be a liar. Fear of my marks going down since the professor would know and may have taken consequences or would fuel his bad behaviour towards me in particular”.

It is important to remember that the ones who should be ashamed are not the students who have experienced sexual harassment, but the harasser. And it is important to remember that denouncing is the only way of tackling the problem and the only way to be protected and to protect future students.

We need to fight this fear of denouncing, this fear of stepping up against the harasser. If we are being harassed or are witnessing abuse in our university, we need to stand up and stand strong. It is outraging that our generation, the youth, the students, the future, are afraid of the one committing wrong. The targets need to be recognised and listened to and the harassers need to be sanctioned by our universities.

Raise your hand and denounce!


Written By: Emma Gettliffe, Research Ambassador at Metta Space

Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space

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