Stay Safe @ Uni: Exploring students’ views about safety and sexual consent

In this post, Dr Emma L Davies, Lecturer in Psychology at Oxford Brookes University, shares details of an exciting new project to inform prevention activities addressing sexual violence in University settings. The project takes place in collabration with Dr Sarah Jayne Camp, Psychology Demonstrator at Oxford Brookes University, and Anna-Sherlock Smith MSc, Independent Researcher. Emma explains why this work is so important and is also able to present initial findings from this new research.

How the project started

In 2013, I attended a talk by Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, where she discussed the problem of sexual assault on university campuses. Colleagues and I felt that we wanted to do something to explore these issues further. However, at the time, I was writing up my PhD thesis and searching for employment and so it was put on the back burner for a while. Last September, a chance encounter with the Head of Campus Security led to a conversation about what approach we should take to tackle issues around sexual harassment and safety on nights out. Now I have a permanent academic post, one of the most rewarding things about my job is the opportunity to undertake research on topics that I really care about. So following this conversation I began to pull together a team of like-minded researchers to start thinking about this important subject. Together with colleagues Dr Sarah Jayne Camp, and Anna Sherlock-Smith, I undertook a literature review to find out what was already known on these issues.

What do we already know about this topic?

A recent Universities UK report has recommended that institutions prioritise tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime (Universities UK, 2016). One of their further aims is to generate programmes and activities aimed at changing existing cultures and behaviours. However, it appears from our literature review that there is a distinct lack of existing evidence to describe the current culture, and a lack of information about the most appropriate methods to change such behaviours.

The UK National Union of Students (NUS) has also called for more to be done to tackle specific issues related to violence towards women (NUS, 2011). They identified that ‘lad culture’ had a strong influence on students’ experiences at university. Lad culture, which is not restricted to men, describes a position where sexist language and behaviours are normalised, and where sexual harassment allows men to reclaim power over women (NUS, 2012). Another NUS report suggested two thirds of students have heard rape and sexual assault jokes on campus (Stanton, 2015). Linked with this culture is a disregard for sexual consent, and there has been an urgent sense of need to ensure that all students understand what this means and to empower them to enact their personal choices (NUS, 2011).

Sexual consent is a particularly complex and sensitive area; one indication of this is seen in some recent backlash towards sexual consent programmes at UK universities, where a male student wrote an opinion piece denigrating their purpose, suggesting that such classes were ‘loathsome’ and ‘a smug, righteous, self-congratulatory intervention’ (Lawlor, 2015). Subsequent mainstream media coverage appeared to support Lawlor’s claims. Such incidents underscore the importance of developing intervention measures that are firmly grounded in the experiences of, and that reflect the values of, students themselves. A top-down approach driven by university bodies may invoke psychological reactance or produce iatrogenic effects, as seen in a Canadian campaign, where posters with the words ‘no means no’ were defaced with slogans such as ‘no means tie her up’ (Mahood & Littlewood, 1997, cited in Kitzinger & Frith, 1999).

Other than reports from the NUS, the research evidence focussed on the views and experiences of UK students is sparse. One qualitative study provides evidence of the complexity of negotiating unwanted sexual encounters for women, highlighting that women’s use of language is different to men’s, which means that saying ‘no’ can be challenging (Kitzinger & Frith, 1999). However, there is a larger body of research that has been undertaken with students at colleges in the United States (US). A review from the US pointed out the challenges in conceptualising consent, and the inequality caused by sexual double standards. This means that it is imperative that new research data is collected to meaningfully inform intervention measures (Muehlenhard, Humphreys, Jozkowski, & Peterson, 2016).

Introducing our project

To address the gap in the literature we developed a survey in collaboration with student representatives and campus security personnel that aimed to explore students’ views on these important issues. In total, 515 students from 18 universities across the UK completed the survey (73% female; 95% aged 18-30) during the first half of 2017. Although the sample is largely female, we also recruited male and non-binary participants (individuals whose gender identity does not fit the male and female binary) who are underrepresented in previous studies. Alongside sections on experiences and perceptions, the survey includes some theory based questions, and some alcohol measures, such as perceptions of alcohol related risks.

Early findings

Although data analysis is ongoing, we can share a few of our initial descriptive findings. One part of the survey related to experiences that participants had on campus. We found that:

  • 61.5% of participants reported they had experienced someone making comments with a sexual undertone that made them uncomfortable.
  • 59.2% reported they had experienced someone wolf whistling, catcalling or making noises with sexual overtones
  • 28.5% reported that someone sent them sexual or obscene material such as pictures, jokes, or stories in the mail or over the Internet, when they had not agreed to look at them

It appears that more female participants have reported these experiences, but this needs to be tested statistically, and we have to bear in mind the gender imbalance in the sample.

In another part of the survey, we asked about students’ views about university campaigns to raise awareness about sexual consent. We found that:

  • 74.6% agreed with the statement that sexual consent campaigns were needed at their institution
  • 53.7% of respondents agreed that universities are responsible for teaching students about sexual consent
  • 29.7% disagreed with the statement that universities are responsible for teaching students about sexual consent

It might be important to explore these findings further, perhaps in an interview study, to explore what students think about the role of the university in providing such campaigns.

The next steps

We are now planning to continue with our analysis, and compare responses by gender and age. We hope to write up some our findings over the summer and use them to inform a bigger project to develop prevention programmes in this area. As we identified, much previous research comes from the United States. We think it is vitally important to explore these issues from a Europe wide perspective and so we would like to hear from colleagues who would be interested in collaborating on future projects in this area.

About the author:

Dr Emma L Davies is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Social Work and Public Health at Oxford Brookes University.  She conducts research into young people’s health and wellbeing, with a specific focus on exploring behaviour change theories, intervention design, and reducing alcohol misuse. You can find her on Twitter @I_am_emma or email her at: edavies[at]

Collaborators: Dr Sarah Jayne Camp, Psychology Demonstrator, Oxford Brookes University & Anna-Sherlock Smith MSc, Independent Researcher


Kitzinger, C., & Frith, H. (1999). Just say no? The use of conversation analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal. Discourse & Society, 10(3), 293-316. doi:10.1177/0957926599010003002

Lawlor, G. (2015). Why I don’t need consent lessons. The Tab: Retrieved from

Muehlenhard, C. L., Humphreys, T. P., Jozkowski, K. N., & Peterson, Z. D. (2016). The Complexities of Sexual Consent Among College Students: A Conceptual and Empirical Review. Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 457-487. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1146651

NUS. (2011). Hidden Marks: A study of women’s experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault (2nd edition). London, National Union of Students, Retrieved from:

NUS. (2012). That’s what she said: Women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education. London, National Union of Students, Retrieved from’s%20what%20she%20said%20full%20report%20Final%20web.pdf

NUS. (2015). I heart consent pilot report. London, National Union of Students, Retrieved from https://nusdigital.s3-eu-west

Stanton, J. (2015). Lad culture and sexism survey: August-September 2014. Retrieved from

Universities UK. (2016). Changing the culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. London, Universities UK. Retrieved from:

Cite this blog post
EUSPR Early Careers Forum (2017, June 22). Stay Safe @ Uni: Exploring students’ views about safety and sexual consent. Preventing disease and ill health. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

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