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What is sexual violence?

4 March 2021

The sexual violence task group understands gender-based violence as 'behaviours or attitudes underpinned by inequitable power relations that hurt, threaten or undermine people because of their (perceived) gender and/or sexuality.' (Sundari and Lewis, 2018). Like all forms of violence, it can be structural, cultural or physical.

Inspired by Liz Kelly, we further recognise that one type of gender-based harm, sexual violence, can be physical, visual, verbal, or sexual, that it can affect the survivor either at the moment of the offence or later 'as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting ... or degrading [them] and/or takes away [their] ability to control intimate contact' (Kelly, 1988 p. 41).

We recognise that sexual violence is not a legal term, but rather is used as an umbrella term to describe various sexual offences. We recognise that under section 26 (2) of the Equality Act 2010 one type of sexual violence, sexual harassment, is defined as 'unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the recipient's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment'. We also see sexual violence as 'a continuous series of elements or events that pass into one another and which cannot be easily distinguished, [it is a] range of abuse, intimidation, coercion, intrusion, threat and force'. We acknowledge 'that there are no clearly defined and discrete analytic categories into which [perpetrators'] behaviour can be placed' (Kelly, 1988 p. 76).

We are aware that women and girls are most often victims of sexual violence and men the vast majority of perpetrators (Watts and Zimmerman, 2002; Hester, 2009 in Sundari and Lewis). We are also aware of how the structures of institutional racism, homophobia and transphobia within the academy mean women of colour, non-binary people and queer people will be more likely to experience gender-based harm that intersects with racism, transphobia and homophobia, in dealing with both the academy and the union, and will therefore experience sexual violence in a uniquely oppressive manner (Imkaan, 2016; Stonewall, 2018). Finally, in line with research from 1752 Group, this task group notes that sexual violence contributes to the prevention of equal access to both education and employment.

When we say sexual violence, we include rape, sexual assault, stalking, revenge porn, domestic violence and coercive or controlling behaviour. We also include the following behaviours: 'whistling, catcalling, sexual comments, sexual innuendo, telling sexual jokes and stories, spreading rumours about a person's sex life, non-verbal harassment such as looking someone up and down, displaying pictures of a sexual nature, sending emails containing sexual content, making sexual gestures, asking for sexual favours, and physical unwanted sexual advances such as kissing, touching, hugging, stroking, patting of someone's clothes, body, hair, and rubbing up against someone, where the touching is sexual' (Universities UK, 2016).

Last updated: 4 March 2021