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“Cultures of Consent: Examining the complexity of sexual misconduct and power within Universities”

Welcome to the Centre for Feminist Research blog. In the first post we introduce our current research project on sexual misconduct entitled ‘Cultures of Consent: Examining the complexity of sexual misconduct and power within Universities.’

What is the project about?

Cultures of Consent is a one-year (2017-18), British Academy funded project on staff-to-student sexual misconduct in British universities that began in August 2017. Work for the project has been done by Lisa Blackman, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Chloe Turner (Goldsmiths).

What is “sexual misconduct”

For us the term ‘sexual misconduct’ describes forms of power used by university employees against students, which may involve grooming, sexual force, intimidation, coercion, or manipulation. Sexual misconduct can include sexual harassment but the latter term can capture a narrower spectrum of abuses of power.

What have we been doing?

Using a scoping review methodology, we have been updating and archiving existing literature on staff-to-student sexual misconduct in UK universities and gathering relevant research from international contexts and on current best practices in an open access resource. As a part of this work we have been identifying suitable methods and methodological principles for future research, as well as trying to facilitate knowledge exchange and build research capacity on the topic.

Research on staff-student sexual misconduct

Much of the existing British research on staff sexual misconduct was undertaken in the 1990s. Staff to student sexual misconduct in British universities is under researched. Since 2016, attention to staff-to-student sexual misconduct has become more prevalent, with media attention to the topic and significant lobbying and quantitative and qualitative data being gathered by the 1752 Group.

Goldsmiths and sexual misconduct

Goldsmiths feminist postgraduate students, alumni and staff have been pioneering British research on the topic. Post-graduate students began the blog ‘Strategic Misogyny’ as an online forum, which has become a resource in gathering and sharing anonymised stories of sexism and staff sexual misconduct, harassment and assault.While the attentiveness to public feeling builds on an important intervention by MA Gender, Media and Culture students at Goldsmiths who organised an event on Sexual Harassment Culture in Higher Education which argues that “Sexual harassment is a problem we have, which affects us all.” This work has taken place in the context of high-profile cases of staff sexual misconduct and harassment at Goldsmiths and the related resignation of Professor Sara Ahmed, which together have intensified concerns about the need to establish institutional and University sector policies and processes to address the issue and provide support for students. Goldsmiths have recently published a new campaign against sexual harassment to help change cultures on campus and training for students and staff. This includes a new online reporting tool Report and Support and and new policies and working practices. This work has been led by Vicki Baars, the Strategy and Review Manager for Sexual harassment.


Key findings from our scoping review of the literature

* Much research does not fully engage with the distinct complexity of staff to student sexual misconduct. The subtleties of the academic power relations that create and allow cultures of coercion, manipulation, grooming and intimidation remain under researched including boundary-blurring actions such as looks, body language and invasions of personal space that produce coercive atmospheres.

* Discussion is most prevalent on acts of sexual harassment/assault, rape culture, university lad culture, and more recently sexual violence within a neoliberal academy.

* We have identified key academic articles spanning from 2010-18, which have significantly shaped understanding of the topic. These are written by a core group of academics (Alison Phipps, Tiffany Page, and Vanita Sundaram) who have also been campaigning for policy changes. This includes shaping NUS/institutional policy and how debates are framed in mainstream and social media. Themes include the importance of recognising the inherent power imbalance in staff-student misconduct, the ineffective reporting strategies that enable misconduct to ‘disappear,’ and the institutional sexism of both schools and Universities that allow such cultures to continue.

* A new report “Power in the Academcy” released in April 2018 by the NUS and 1752 Group stands as the only specifically focused, quantitative study of staff sexual misconduct in Higher Education. The report concludes that Higher Education in the UK is an environment where sexualised touching, comments or threats are experienced by students from staff members. Women, postgraduate and gay, queer and bisexual students, are disproportionately likely to be subject to acts of misconduct. The findings also highlight the inadequate institutional policies and processes available to students when attempting to report these incidents.


Sexual Misconduct – Our approach

The terms “cultures of sexual misconduct” and “sexual harassment culture” that are often used in the literature are significant. They remind us that individual acts have long histories and that they are shaped by and shape the circulation of “public feelings” within institutions. Our project builds on the important work of academics and activists who have identified some of the ways in which these public feelings can manifest. These include, the cultures of neoliberal universities, sexist pedagogy and curricula, bodily capital (who and what is accorded value), the mental health crisis within universities, as well as the more ephemeral ways in which knowledge and awareness of sexual misconduct can circulate through rumours, gossip, anecdotes gestures and silences.

We also recognize that these complex histories and cultures intersect with those psychosocial histories that students bring to university cultures. Such histories and cultures can be mobilized, recruited, amplified and channeled through practices of grooming, coercion, intimidation, manipulation and sexual force and also can become the sites of personal and political resistance. There are class, raced and sexed dimensions to these dynamics that are currently underexplored.

In order to begin to understand these issues we require intersectional approaches that can understand the psychosocial dimensions of “consent”, that are attentive to the liveliness of sexism and cultures of sexual harassment that exist in schooling, education, media cultures, sport, politics, the family, literature and so forth. This is important to not only allow cultures of sexual misconduct in HE to be identified but also to shape a counter set of “public feelings” with the aim of intervening in and stopping the proliferation of cultures of sexual harassment.

Our online literature archive is available via the following Cite-u-Like library link

Alongside the research we will also be hosting a conference:

Public Feelings, Dissident Acts: Dismantling Cultures of Sexual Harassment in Universities
Monday 18th June
Goldsmiths, University of London

More details to follow


Let us know what you think via the comments below or social media/email links on our Contact page.


Lisa Blackman, Yasmin Gunaratnam, Chloe Turner.