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Illustration Callum Abbott

Sussex University supports ‘gender critics’ while sexual violence festers

The institution has acted quickly to protect staff member Kathleen Stock from ‘harassment’, but student survivors of abuse say they’ve been neglected for years with broken reporting tools, slow responses, and no support

TextKatie TobinIllustrationCallum Abbott

Earlier this month, #ShameOnSussexUni went viral on Twitter, amassing over 11k tweets within the first 72 hours. The hashtag was created as part of student protests against Kathleen Stock, a controversial “gender critical” academic who began writing on sex and gender in 2018. 

The hashtag started trending following the creation of the @AntiTerfSussex Instagram page on October 6, and its network is formed of queer and trans students who are committed to showing unity and resistance in the face of the University of Sussex’s employment of Stock. Resonding on Twitter, the university swiftly condemned the protestors. “It’s horrifying that a university would punish protests on campus from students who have a reasonable concern about a professor who has literally written briefs to parliament to argue against trans rights,” Oxford alum and non-binary writer Dianna E. Anderson wrote.

Former Sussex lecturer Alison Phipps tweeted: “All solidarity with trans staff and students, and allies, at Sussex – I feel so sad about what has gone on and continues to go on there.”

Despite insisting that she is “not transphobic”, Stock has been criticised for publicly stating that “trans women are still males with male genitalia” and signing a submission to the government about the 2018 Gender Recognition Act consultation, which suggested that “transgenderism” promoted “the normalisation of men’s cross-dressing by medical professionals”. Stock’s tweets were also cited in support of a US Supreme Court case that could potentially legalise “discrimination against transgender people based on their status as transgender” in the workplace.

“Trans people are subject to surveillance and the monitoring of their protests by their universities, and are then forced to see their universities turn around and defend hate speech under ‘freedom of speech’,” says Valerie, Sussex University’s trans and non-binary officer in 2020. “Trans people have been abandoned by their universities, who are emboldening transphobia while actively denying trans people their right to speak.”

In a statement to Dazed, the University of Sussex said: “We have acted – and will continue to act – firmly and promptly to tackle bullying and harassment, to defend the fundamental principle of academic freedom, to welcome and support our diverse community, and continue to progress our work on equality, diversity, and inclusion. We care deeply about getting this balance right. As a community, we need to come together and talk about what is happening at the moment and to look at the way forward.

Our recently published paper, Inclusion, Freedom of Expression and the Spirit of Sussex, details our approach to these complex issues – and how we ensure we lead the way in academia and inclusion.”

In an earlier response to the backlash, the south east England university put out a public statement on Twitter, stating: “We cannot and will not tolerate threats to cherished academic freedoms and will take any action necessary to protect the rights of our community.” What, however, the statement failed to address was the university’s rich history of failing to tackle countless instances of violence against women. Many Twitter users were quick to address this, noting that student victims of domestic violence had suffered significantly as a result of the university’s mishandling of their reports.

Although official responses from the university attest that it does “not tolerate the use of violence of any kind”, the cases of sexual misconduct and domestic abuse have left victims feeling helpless and traumatised. Similarly, while the ethos of Stock’s writings on sex and gender focuses on protecting women from violence and abuse, a media and social media search reveals that she has never spoken online on the Lee Salter case – a former lecturer who was convicted of assault in June 2016. During a relationship with one of his postgraduate students, Allison Smith, the Media and Communications professor had punched the victim in the face, knocked her out, and stamped on her. It was only in August 2016, when a petition with over 3,000 signatures advocating for his dismissal was made public, that Salter was dismissed from his position.

The university formally apologised for its handling of the Salter case in January 2017 following an independent report conducted by Nicole Westmarland, a Durham University professor and the director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse. The report found that not only had the University of Sussex failed to follow its own policies and procedures but that “the university failed in its duty of pastoral care”. Other areas of poor practice included the inadequate risk assessment and “the over-reliance on and lack of scrutiny of Human Resources” when making decisions.

Westmarland’s review included 11 recommendations for the university to implement. Of these recommendations, the university pledged a commitment to look “into any matter that is raised in relation to violence, abuse, or harassment”. In his apology, vice chancellor Adam Tickell claimed that there were “important lessons from Professor Westmarland’s report” about Sussex’s internal procedures, and that the university would be “introducing a series of major initiatives in response to the report’s recommendations”. 

Yet the university has yet to comment on its disparate approach in protecting Stock from harassment while leaving reports of domestic violence and abuse undealt with for months, even years. “If Stock wanted to use her sizable platform for good – not just for bashing the trans community – and speak up to help the victims of Sussex Uni, why hasn’t she?” asks former Sussex student Claire*, who tells Dazed that she reported her experience of extreme psychological abuse during her time at the university. “Stock’s transphobia harms everyone, including every woman she claims to be protecting.”

Currently, the disciplinary policies surrounding domestic abuse in UK universities are vague at best, but largely go unmentioned. Durham professor Westmarland has said that “universities have focused on sexual violence and forgotten or sidelined domestic violence by adhering to stereotypes about who experiences domestic violence and abuse and who is even in a serious relationship”.

“If Stock wanted to use her sizable platform for good – not just for bashing the trans community – and speak up to help the victims of Sussex Uni, why hasn’t she?” – Claire*, former student

“We have zero tolerance for any form of violence, abuse or misconduct and will always take seriously any report made to us,” says a University of Sussex spokesperson. “Our new Report and Support tool is designed to remove any barriers to people coming forward and we are strongly encouraging our community to use it, anonymously if they prefer.” On the Salter case, the university adds: “In 2016, the university commissioned an independent report into a domestic abuse case involving two members of our community. That report, by Professor Nicole Westmarland, reached right across the university and made a number of excellent recommendations, which we have implemented in full.” 

However, Phoebe*, another former Sussex student, says that she thinks the university hasn’t learned the lessons from the Salter incident. After filing a report against an ex-boyfriend in early November 2019, it took until February 2021 for the university to find the perpetrator guilty of psychological, sexual, and physical abuse. Phoebe tells Dazed that she ended up dropping out of university because of the severity of the abuse, and the effects it had on her wellbeing. “My complaint included my ex-boyfriend’s written admissions of acts of rape, violence, and severe psychological abuse against me,” she explains. “It was there in writing that he had done all of that to me, and it still took them well over a year to authorise that it had actually happened.”

Currently, UK universities function within restricted national and international legal frameworks. However, there are no specific legislative duties on UK universities for investigating abuse, and action taken against perpetrators is up to the discretion of each individual institution.

Speaking to Dazed, Georgia Calvert-Lee, the head of UK practice and senior counsel for law firm McAllister Olivarius, advised that “unfortunately, the law isn’t as clear cut as any of us would like and that’s why there is room for universities to exploit this”. McAllister Olivarius previously represented the victims of the Warwick “rape chat”, which featured messages including, “Sometimes it’s fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls”, and, “She looks like a rape victim”, refering to other students they knew. In 2020, a settlement was reached after Warwick University’s handling of the complaint was found to be discriminatory on the basis of sex.

Phoebe’s victim statement – submitted in 2019 – included details about her abuser “fantasising” about causing her “grievous bodily harm”, biting her until she bled, “demeaning verbal abuse”, and forcing her to have violent sex with him. The university, however, was made aware of the incidents in 2017, before her decision to formally report. Shortly after the rape occurred, Phoebe says she spoke with “both the student life centre and the university counselling service about the abusive relationship I was in whilst I was still at university”. She explains that both services “knew the nature of my relationship and how it was affecting me” and were “well aware of my mental state in relation to this”.

The University of Sussex claimed that no action could be taken to protect Phoebe until she filed a report against her ex-boyfriend with the university. During her time as a student, she had to regularly encounter her abuser on campus, as he was both a staff member and a student at the time. Phoebe adds that she had been unable to sit her exams in January 2018 due to a lack of proper aftercare following a suicide attempt, she was told she would not be able to sit her exams later in the year because of university policy. As Phoebe had failed the same exam twice (with mitigating circumstances for both), she was not allowed to take the exam again.

“The uni didn’t force me (out) directly, but they denied me the chance of progressing to my final year,” she says. Phoebe claims that although she dropped out following a “ruined education and years of trauma”, trying to “make money to live with no support” was still a better option than continuing on at Sussex.

Claire, who had also reported the same student Phoebe had in November 2019, suspected that Sussex had mishandled her case, too. For both Claire and Phoebe, it was never clarified if a no-contact policy had been put in place, or what action had even been taken following the completion of the student disciplinary procedure.

“We attempted to gain updates (on reported abuse) because (the university) had not yet contacted the concerned students, (only to be) dismissed and told that the zero-tolerance reporting tool had technical difficulties over the summer” – anonymous student society

Members of a prominent student society (who asked to remain anonymous) spoke to Dazed about experiencing repeated verbal abuse and sexual harassment/assault from an older member of the group. “We first reported it to the Student’s Union in April 2020 and were referred to either the (university’s) own reporting tool or the police,” they explain. “As a society, we were not provided with help or guidance on how to manage this internally. In August and throughout September of that year, we attempted to gain updates because they had not yet contacted the concerned students, (only to be) dismissed and told that Student Union’s tool had technical difficulties over the summer.”

“The SU – which was sent the report directly in April and acknowledged it – now claims that it had heard nothing of (the complaints) and that they would have to be resubmitted,” the society continues. “In October when The Tab reported this, the marketing manager from the SU said the complaints they missed were ‘immediately investigated and resolved’, and that the error only caused ‘a delay in allocating cases’, which was false because the claims have not yet been resolved, and we were also told the initial report was missing.”

With the case concluded, the group says that they have not been allowed to ask the perpetrator in question to leave. “We’re embarrassed that the Union has not just mismanaged this, but also swept their failure under the rug by not releasing a public statement encouraging victims to resubmit their reports after repairing the online reporting tool,” they tell Dazed. “Failing to do so meant students weren’t aware if they needed to re-report, leaving vulnerable people in the dark without direction.”

All victims who Dazed spoke with reported a lack of transparency during investigations, while those who had seen the process through to completion said they weren’t allowed to know the outcome. Calvert-Lee, a lawyer at McAllister Olivarius, says that “universities use GDPR and data protection obligations as an excuse for not providing transparency through their investigations”.

She continues: “Many times, if you scratch the surface of what they say, you quite readily see that there’s no one else’s personal data that they are trying to protect – it’s mainly their own data, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t give you an answer to it. Certainly, the outcome to your complaint ought to be given in line with Universities UK guidance on investigations.”

The only information Claire was given was that her abuser had fully admitted to all instances of “inappropriate behaviour” when she told the University of Sussex that she was a victim of domestic abuse. All students that Dazed spoke to were unsure of the disciplinary outcomes of their investigations. However, in 2019, BBC News revealed that the University of Sussex had previously imposed a sanction of £250 for one student found guilty of sexual misconduct, “only payable if the student got into trouble again before the end of that year”. 

A university spokesperson responded to Dazed enquiry about the lengthy investigation times: “Due to the serious nature of many of these cases, our internal investigations can be delayed, sometimes significantly, by ongoing police investigations or serious medical factors”. Phoebe and Claire say that they were never subject to any medical examinations, nor were they notified of any ongoing police investigation. The university adds that due to GDPR laws, it would not be possible to disclose the safety measures – if any – that had been put in place to protect them. Sussex University claims that it is “only able to respond to items that are pertinent to (the victim’s) complaint”.

However, Sussex’s response goes against guidance put out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which recommends that “DPOs (Data Protection Officers) within universities should take steps to allow their institutions to share the outcomes of disciplinary proceedings with complainants where it is appropriate to do so”. When further questioned about this contradictory information by the reporting student, Sussex’s Office for Student Complaints, Appeals, and Regulations did not respond to the multiple requests.

“I had no idea what was going on, no idea of timescale for completion, what the stages of the complaint were, or how I was going to be kept safe” – Claire*, former student

“Universities ought to undertake their investigations much quicker,” says Calvert-Lee. “If complying with guidance on investigations and good practice that is issued by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, over a year is way beyond the three months guidance that’s set out. In this case, if you turned up to your university and you already have an admission from your perpetrator that he has committed acts of sexual violence and assault, especially if these acts are of the sort that might pose a risk to other people in the university community, then the university has an obligation to take some action to protect you and other people who may be at risk from harm.

“That’s the duty of care they have. In the circumstance where they have an admission, arguably they don’t need to go and interview other witnesses. Every day that passes without them coming to a conclusion is further damage to a victim who made the complaint.”

Last year, Dazed submitted a Freedom of Information request enquiring about the average length of time taken to deal with cases of abuse, the protocol currently in place to protect students who have reported abuse when the perpetrator is still a student (and the student discipline investigation is ongoing), and how many cases of abuse dealt with in the past year resulted in action being taken against students found guilty.

The FOI revealed that “for the academic year 2019-20, the average time taken to investigate allegations of ‘physical misconduct, sexual misconduct, or sexual harassment’ was between two months to one year”. This means that for students who had reported, they could spend up to – and over, in some cases – a year waiting to hear about their case, sharing the small campus with their abusers. 

This discounts the two cases from that academic year, which were still ongoing in November 2020. Although the FOI suggested such delays were down to the pandemic, Phoebe and Claire’s reports were filed five months before the pandemic. Calvert-Lee affirms that even five months goes against guidance from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, stating that: “Universities ought to undertake their investigations much quicker. If complying with guidance on investigations and good practice that it is issued by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. 1.25 years (in Phoebe’s case) is way beyond three months.“

“I had no idea what was going on, no idea of timescale for completion, what the stages of the complaint were, or how I was going to be kept safe,” Claire says. Despite this, the Office for Students’ consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education made clear that institutions “should have a fair, clear, and accessible approach to taking action in response to reports and disclosures” and “visible and easy to understand information for all staff and students about the provider’s investigatory process, decision-making process, and associated timescales”. Claire said that this couldn’t have been further from her experience. 

Shockingly, Claire also reports that in April 2021, she was privately messaged by a now-deleted Twitter account that referenced her and Phoebe’s abuser by name, claiming that he was “allowed to rape and abuse five women” by the university. The account also told Claire that their sister “ended her life because of this, and the pain regarding a lack of investigation and the fact it was covered up pains me to this day”. Claire responded: “I’m sorry, are you telling me someone killed themselves because of his abuse?” to which the account replied, “That’s exactly what I’m saying”. The case was allegedly reported to the university and Sussex Police, the latter of whom declined to comment.

A University of Sussex spokesperson said: “There has to be a lawful basis for any disclosure of personal data, including that an individual isn’t or hasn’t been a student at Sussex. So I’m afraid that the University can’t provide any information about this.”

In response to the other abuse allegations in this piece, the spokesperson tells Dazed: “We have zero tolerance for any form of violence, abuse, or misconduct and will always take any report made to us (seriously). Our new Report and Support tool is designed to remove any barriers to people coming forward, and we are strongly encouraging our community to use it – anonymously if they prefer.” The university also said it cannot comment on individual cases, but shared its Statement on Violence.

“When I supplied a substantial, written admission of rape, why did the university take over a year to complete my case?” – Phoebe*, former student

While the university responded swiftly and publicly to defend Stock against alleged “bullying” and calls for her to be sacked, students remain concerned that the University of Sussex has failed to properly tackle its serious sexual violence and domestic abuse issue. Following the university’s failure to protect her, Allison Smith, who was abused by former lecturer Salter, declared that “Sussex University has failed in its duty of care to me and women students”.

This is a sentiment worryingly echoed by Phoebe five years later. “When I supplied a substantial, written admission of rape, why did the university take over a year to complete my case?” she asks. The answer remains unclear.

Stock continues to speak out on alleged “extreme transgender ideology and the threat to women’s rights”, but she has yet to use her platform to promote Sussex’s sexual safety campaign Under the Sheets, or to address the university’s failed duty of care to Smith. Dazed approached Stock for comment, but she did not respond.

“If Stock remains so adamant to defend the safety of women, then perhaps her sizable platform should be put to use to criticise Sussex’s failures to protect its students, instead of focusing so heavily on the trans community,” says Claire. “If the same attention was given to Sussex’s violence and abuse problem as it was to Stock’s ‘cancellation’, maybe we could finally see the institutional changes that so many are fighting for.”

*Names have been changed