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Relationships, consent and university

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Over the next couple of weeks thousands of young people will leave home to start studying in higher education.

Heading to university is for many a major step in their transition to becoming independent adults and it is an opportunity to spread their wings and form new friendships, relationships and identities.

However like any adventure, this journey towards adulthood is not without risks.  A lot of people will reflect on their time at university and remember nights with one too many drinks, perhaps some experimentation with substances and sexual encounters that we later regret.

But sadly others experience situations that are much darker. Research by the NUS found that 37% of female students had experienced unwelcome sexual advances and 7% have experienced a serious sexual assault. This correlates with the findings of the National Crime Survey where the rates of intimate partner violence, serious sexual assault and stalking are highest among younger adults.

Drugs and alcohol undoubtedly play a role in some of these events, and research shows that young people may be more at risk of sexual assault when under the influence. That doesn’t mean that young people shouldn’t enjoy a drink or two without worrying about their safety, but we all have a responsibility to make sure each other is safe and to step in where we see someone who may be unable to consent, being taken advantage of.

How can we promote a situation where students can work together to prevent sexual harassment, sexual coercion, rape and domestic abuse? International evidence shows that bystander intervention programmes can be an important tool for universities to support students to develop that sense of responsibility for each other.

In 2014, Public Health England commissioned the University of West of England to undertake an evidence review and build, in collaboration with other universities, a national toolkit for bystander intervention for England.

The result is the Intervention Initiative, an evidence based programme for universities to develop students’ skills to recognise and respond to intimate partner violence, sexual coercion and stalking.

The evaluation of the programme, presented at the recent European conference on domestic violence, demonstrated a significant impact on students’ knowledge and skills and suggested a step change in attitudes among the young people completing the programme.

The Intervention Initiative sits alongside powerful national campaigns by the National Union of Students, including; I Heart Consent and Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment, and builds on the learning from universities who are already working in this area in the UK and abroad.

The Intervention should sit as part of a university wide strategy to address violence for students and staff, linking with our employer toolkit produced with the Corporate Alliance Against  Domestic Violence to support employers to address domestic abuse.

This month the Crown Prosecution Service is launching #consentis, a national campaign to increase the nation’s understanding of what sexual consent means. Case law demonstrates how this remains an area of confusion for too many people, and too many young people find themselves in situations where they are disempowered when it comes to choices about their body and their relationships.

The Intervention Initiative is a key part of changing this at a national scale. If every university in the country adopted the Initiative, or a similar bystander intervention programme, then we would see a step change towards attitudes and understanding of domestic violence, rape, stalking and harassment within a generation. There is potential for a fundamental culture shift in this country, and we hope that every university will step up to the challenge of being part of the change.

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