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What is sexual misconduct?

On this page, you will find information on sexual misconduct, healthy relationships, and other forms of gender-based violence. Some of this information might resonate with you or be triggering – remember to be gentle with yourself and take breaks when you need to.

Click the links below to find out more about sexual misconduct.

Sexual misconduct refers to any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature.

It includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, and examples can include:

Sexual harassment. Any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that makes you feel distressed, intimidated or humiliated

Sexual violence. This is actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, including inappropriate touching, by force or under unequal or coercive conditions

Rape. Non-consensual penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth. Non-consensual means you didn’t freely agree to have sexual intercourse, including if you were threatened, asleep, unconscious, drugged or incapacitated by alcohol

Sexually degrading comments or gestures

Being stared or leered at

E-mails or text messages with sexual content 

Unwelcome sexual advances and touching

Someone displaying sexually explicit pictures in your space or a shared space

Offers of rewards in return for sexual favours

For more detailed definitions of sexual misconduct, harassment and violence please visit the following websites:

  • The Pinsent Mason guidance for Higher Education Institutions has a definition of sexual misconduct on page 14, and can be found here.
  • See Rape Crisis for a definition of sexual harassment and assault. 
  • Refuge, a domestic abuse charity, has a comprehensive definition of sexual violence.

If you have experienced sexual misconduct, it is never your fault. We understand how upsetting this can be and are here to support you. Click here to go to our support page.

Challenging the myths

Sexual misconduct, harassment and violence, just like all types of abuse, can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, social class, gender and sexual orientation.

The majority of sexual violence is carried out by someone the victim/survivor (the person who has has violence inflicted upon them) knows, such as friends, colleagues, family members, relationship partners and ex-partners.

It is important to remember that consent must be gained each time someone engages in sexual activity. Just because someone is in an intimate and sexual relationship with someone does not mean that they consent to sexual activity. 

If someone is intoxicated, i.e. under the influence of drugs or alcohol they cannot consent, nor can someone who is asleep or unconscious.

You don’t have to contact the police to receive support from your university or any other support service for victim/survivors of sexual misconduct. You can visit a SARC (Sexual Assault Referral Centre) without reporting to the police. For more information on SARCS visit the Rape Crisis website here.

It is never the victim/survivor’s fault that they have experienced misconduct, regardless of their appearance, whether they were intoxicated or if they have given consent previously. 

Perpetrators are responsible for their own behaviour, regardless of whether they are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or experiencing mental ill-health. There are no direct causal links between these things (stress, problematic substance use, mental ill-health, child abuse) and the perpetration of violence.

The most consistent thread between perpetrators includes hostile and misogynistic attitudes towards women.

Terminology – ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’?

The most commonly used terms when referring to people who have experienced violence and abuse are ‘victim’ and ‘survivor.’

For some people, it’s important for them to acknowledge that they  have been a victim and, for others, to acknowledge they have survived. ‘Survivor’ recognises someone’s strengths and creativity in having survived, which is the term most commonly used at AVA, the creators of this Resource Hub. 

On the other hand, some people feel that ‘victim’ better reflects people’s struggles to cope with what has happened.

Some people do not like either term and argue that the  labels suggest ways in which people should react/feel after trauma. Alternatives to use are ‘people who have experienced domestic and sexual violence’ or ‘people who have been affected by domestic and sexual violence’.

It’s important to listen to how people who have experienced violence and abuse refer to themselves and respect their choice of language. 

Sexual misconduct at universities

A 2018 consultation held by The Student Room and Revolt Sexual Assault found 62% of all students and recent graduates surveyed had experienced sexual violence.

A 2019 report from the NUS found 75% of respondents had experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour.

The Unsafe Spaces research estimates an annual average of 50,000 incidents of sexual abuse and harassment at universities in England and Wales. 

Research from Empowered Campus shows that over half of students who have experienced sexual misconduct experienced it on campus.

Research with 554 heterosexual male university students in the UK found that 63 admitted to rape or sexual assault.

Research from AVA shows that 62% of UK university students had been effected by sexual misconduct from the research sample, and 70% didn’t tell anyone about what happened to them.

Intersectionality, violence and abuse

Intersectionality is a term coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. It is an approach which accounts for overlapping systems of power and oppression which disadvantage particular individuals as a result of the way their identities are viewed in society and their access to power and privilege. An individual’s social and political identities (e.g. gender, race, sexuality, disability) combine to make unique modes of discrimination.

Intersectionality is a useful term to understand how experiences of violence and abuse are affected by an individual’s multiple and overlapping identities.

People’s identities might interact to create layers of discrimination and further abuse, or act as barriers to survivors accessing support.

For example, the reports above highlight that women are considerably more likely to face sexual violence or abuse, while men form a substantial majority of perpetrators. Furthermore, across these studies, rates of sexual misconduct are found to be significantly elevated for LGBT+ and disabled students, and they are found to face additional barriers to reporting and support: gender, sexuality and ability are inextricable from experiences of sexual violence.

Other factors to consider are immigration status and language barriers. These can be serious barriers in accessing support.

Perpetrators of violence and abuse can and do benefit from the oppression that survivors may experience more widely in society, and may use that as a means to abuse someone. 

Myths and stereotypes relating to intersectionality and violence and abuse exist, for example female genital mutilation (FGM) is sometimes thought to only happen to Muslim women, and forced marriage to only affect South Asian women. It’s important to be mindful of the impact of our assumptions about survivors.

Research from AVA highlights that for Black and minoritised women, race and gender affects experiences of violence and abuse – they may suffer more severe abuse for longer, and face more barriers to support than white women. 

The 1752 Group has useful resources for understanding the intersection of racism and sexual misconduct at university. 

Resources and publications from Galop highlight the barriers to support faced by, and the needs of, LGBT+ survivors of violence and abuse.

These two reports from SafeLives highlight the realities of domestic abuse for LGBT+ and disabled people.

Sexual misconduct & domestic abuse

Sexual misconduct includes sexual violence, which may happen in the context of intimate partner or family relationships. In these cases, sexual violence is a form of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse is:

any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse

between those aged 16 or over

who are personally connected to each other i.e. those who are or have previously been connected by marriage, civil partnership, intimacy, family relatives or shared parental relationship and carers who are personally connected.

This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Physical or sexual abuse 
  • Violent or threatening behaviour
  • Controlling or coercive behaviour
  • Restricting or controlling economic resources, like money, transport and housing
  • Psychological and emotional abuse

Coercive and controlling behaviour is when a person who is personally connected with the survivor repeatedly behaves in a way which makes them feel controlled, dependent, isolated or scared. It became a specific criminal offence in 2015 under that Serious Crime Act 2015. An abuser will be guilty of the offence of coercive control if:

  • They are personally connected to the survivor
  • The behaviour had a serious effect on the survivor
  • The abuser knew or ought to have known that their behaviour would have a serious effect on the survivor

Domestic abuse dynamics are all about power and control.

This definition of domestic abuse includes so-called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), and forced marriage. Children under the age of 18 can be victims of domestic violence. More information on the government definition of domestic abuse can found in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

Young people, particularly young women, experience the highest rates of domestic violence across any age group. In 2015, the Crime Survey for England and Wales identified that 12.6% of women aged 16-19 had experienced domestic abuse in the past year, this is significantly higher (42%) than the next highest age category (20-24).

Intimate partner violence (IPV) includes physical, sexual, financial, psychological and emotional abuse and controlling behaviour by a current or former intimate partner, and is a form of domestic abuse.

In the SafeLives (2017) report it highlights that 25% of girls and 18% of boys (aged 13-17) reported physical violence from an intimate partner, and that 31% of girls reported sexual abuse within their relationship.

Further data in the report shows that 95% of young people experience IPV.

Watch this short animation showing an example IPV for young people from Shine Aloud UK.

How does experiencing violence & abuse affect people?

Experiencing domestic and sexual violence is traumatic. A traumatic event is an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms people’s coping mechanisms and gives rise to feelings of fear, helplessness and horror. 

AVA’s Complicated Matters toolkit on domestic and sexual violence explains that, although people respond to trauma in different ways, there are some common responses to domestic and sexual violence.

These include:

Experiencing feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and depression.

Physical health and stress-related problems, like physical injuries, sleep problems, chronic illnesses.

Difficulty concentrating and planning, self-blame, rumination and panic attacks. 

Self-harm, substance use, irritability, hypersensitivity and loss of interest in activities. 

Withdrawal from others, difficulties with trust and intimacy and relating to others.

This is not an exhaustive list. There is no standard way people respond to the extreme stress of violence and abuse.

AVA’s Relationship Questionnaire

Do you think you may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship?

Below are some of the most common warning signs of abuse, although the list is not exhaustive.

It may help you to tick the ones that apply to you to help you identify the support that you need.

Remember that the abuse is not your fault and there is help available.

Does your partner:

  • Frighten you
  • Ignore you when you say ‘no’
  • Withhold medicine or access to support
  • Try to limit how you pray or express your beliefs
  • Tell you who you can and can’t spend time with
  • Control your finances
  • Check up on you to see where you are and who you are with
  • Blame you for everything
  • Constantly put you down
  • Threaten to hurt you, or people/animals that you care about
  • Hurt you physically or sexually
  • If you have answered yes to any of these, you may be in an abusive relationship.

What can I do?

If you are finding out about abuse for the first time, or you have concerns about your relationship, it can be good to discuss it in a confidential way with a trusted professional, a specialist service, or with other survivors.

Women’s Aid – Survivor Forum has a board specifically dedicated to survivors discussing how to have early conversations about what is and isn’t ok in a relationship.

You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or via their live chat service.

There are more support options on our support page.

If you need emergency help, call 999. If you are not able to speak, the operator can transfer you to the ‘silent solution’ where you will be prompted to press ‘55’ to indicate you need help.