Sexual violence in the form of sexual assault is a serious problem on South African university campuses, and it can be argued that it is sanctioned and embedded within institutional cultures. Sexual assault on university campuses is a serious issue that affects many students and can have a devastating impact on the survivors, their families, and the wider community. Unfortunately, this is also a widespread problem, with many universities and colleges around the world reporting incidents of sexual assault and harassment.
For example, statistics from recent studies and reports show alarming rates of sexual violence. In a 2019 survey conducted by the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS), 19% of students reported experiencing sexual assault on campus. The same survey found that 27% of students reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances, and 18% reported experiencing sexual harassment. Furthermore, in a 2016 survey conducted by the South African Union of Students, more than 70% of respondents reported knowing someone who had experienced sexual violence on campus.
These statistics highlight the urgent need for institutions of higher learning to take action to address sexual violence, especially sexual assault and harassment within their institutions, which can be achieved through awareness campaigns such as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). The month of April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) – an important time to raise awareness and educate people about the importance of consent in all forms of sexual activity. Consent is a fundamental aspect of healthy sexual relationships, and it is important to understand what it means and how to ask for it. Education on consent in higher education institutions (HEIs) can help prevent sexual assault and ensure that everyone is comfortable and safe during sexual activity. During SAAM, it is essential to educate ourselves and others on the importance of consent, how to recognise and address situations where it is not given, and how to create a culture of respect and understanding around sexual consent. This education can help promote a safer and more positive sexual culture, free of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses.
Addressing rape culture within higher education institutions (HEIs)
The prevalence of rape culture at South African universities is a serious and concerning issue. Rape culture refers to the normalisation of sexual violence in our society and a culture where sexual violence is often excused, normalised, and even glorified; it manifests, for example, through victim blaming, protection of perpetrators, objectification of women, and jokes about rape, etc. This culture perpetuates harmful attitudes and behaviours that contribute to sexual harassment, assault, and rape. These perceptions are learned from the way society is socialised, i.e., gender roles and cultural beliefs and attitudes that maintain that men are active agents and receivers of consent, while women are merely passive agents and receivers of consent. This notion is deeply problematic and has serious implications for gender equality and the way society perceives and treats women. For example, it consequently reinforces gender stereotypes, perpetuates rape culture, ignores the complexity of consent, leads to victim-blaming, and re-enforces gender imbalances.
It is essential to address rape culture at universities, because sexual violence and harassment have a devastating impact on survivors and can affect their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Survivors of sexual violence may experience a range of negative outcomes, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. Additionally, sexual violence can negatively impact academic performance and lead to students dropping out of school. Addressing rape culture at universities is also important because it promotes a safe and supportive environment for all students.
Furthermore, by addressing rape culture, universities can help to prevent sexual violence and harassment from occurring in the first place. Promoting a culture of consent and respect, educating students about healthy relationships and boundaries, and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions can all contribute to creating a safer campus environment. By taking a proactive stance on these issues, universities can help to change attitudes and behaviours that contribute to a culture of violence and promote a culture of respect and equality.
Resocialisation the only hope to eradicating sexual violence through consent education
Cultural and traditional beliefs and attitudes can have a significant impact on how consent is understood and practised in a society. As it stands, there are problematic views of it, hence, it is crucial to re-socialise our society to get rid of these problematic attitudes. For example, some cultures and traditions have strict rules around gender roles and sexual behaviour, which can make it difficult for individuals to assert their own boundaries and preferences in sexual encounters.
Additionally, some cultures still view sexual activity, especially for women, as taboo or shameful, which makes it difficult for them to communicate openly about their desires and needs. Again, there are some who believe that men are entitled to sex and that women should be passive and submissive in sexual encounters, which leads to situations where women are coerced or pressured into sexual activity without giving their full and enthusiastic consent. On the other hand, some cultures still view sex as a duty or obligation within marriage or a relationship, which can make it difficult for individuals to say no to their partners. Thus, a focus on re-teaching consent can help change perceptions, prevent sexual violence, and change the rape culture in university communities.
Moreover, because they are a direct reflection of our larger society, all the beliefs and attitudes have been assimilated into university cultures and institutions. Therefore, it is crucial for HEIs to identify and refute cultural and traditional attitudes and beliefs that support forceful or non-consensual sexual conduct.Top of Form
Creating safer university spaces through consent education Top of Form
Consent speaks to the enthusiastic and ongoing agreement between all parties involved in a sexual or romantic encounter. It means that all parties involved have given explicit permission and are fully aware of what is happening. Therefore, consent education is incredibly important in HEIs, because it helps to create a culture of respect, safety, and a sense of comfort in relationships for its student and staff community. Consent education helps to teach that it is not just about saying ‘no’, but also about actively seeking and obtaining consent in a way that is respectful, clear, and mutually understood. A focus on consent education through awareness campaigns on and around campus can help create safer spaces for staff and students, because it empowers them to make informed decisions about their bodies, boundaries, and relationships. It can further help to prevent sexual assault and harassment, as well as to promote healthy relationships and positive sexual experiences for all. By educating university staff and students about consent, we can help to create a university community where sexual violence is not tolerated, where people are empowered to make informed decisions about their bodies, and where healthy and respectful relationships are the norm. Lastly, by educating students on what constitutes consent and the importance of seeking it, institutions of higher education can help create a culture of respect, autonomy, and safety for all.