Published on February 24, 2014 | by Hollie Bracciale


Over one million women in the UK suffer domestic abuse

A scared looking woman looking out of a window.

4,500 women experience some form of abuse every day in the UK. [Clelia Carbonari]

Despite all of our progress in other areas of society, one shocking fact remains a constant – men are still manipulating, beating and raping women.

Chilling government figures show that in 2012 more than 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse, 400,000 women were sexually assaulted and more than 70,000 women were raped.

To put it another way, more than 4,500 women suffered some kind of abuse each day that year.

But this figure isn’t accurate. These are only the known cases of abuse, and less than one in four people who suffer at the hands of a partner, and only one in ten women who experience serious sexual assault, report it to the police.

Who are the women behind these figures? You may be excused for assuming that they are weak, trapped in a marriage and a couple of decades away from the carefree life of a student; this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales has consistently shown that young women aged 16–24 have a heightened risk of being a victim of violent crime compared with older women.

It has also shown that the majority of victims of domestic violence are women, and that sexual partner violence in young people’s relationships is all too common.

“Women aged 16–24 have a higher risk of experiencing domestic violence, but there appear[s] to be little awareness of this amongst students,” said Olivia Bailey, former NUS National Women’s Officer.

In 2010 the NUS carried out a survey named Hidden Marks, which gathered responses from more than 2,000 female students in the UK. In the only study of its kind students were asked to answer questions focusing only on their time at university.


The findings are alarming, showing one in seven female students (14 per cent) has been the victim of serious sexual assault or serious physical violence while at university or college; in 60 per cent of these cases of sexual assault or stalking, the offender was also a student.

“It is extremely disturbing that so many women students are assaulted and harassed while at university or college, and it is particularly worrying that the perpetrators in many of these cases are fellow students,” says Bailey.

Women who took part in the survey spoke about domestic violence, including manipulation, financial control and emotional as well as sexual abuse.

In 81 per cent of serious sexual assault cases, victims were most likely to know their attacker, with men being the offender in 89 per cent of violent, physical attacks.

“It is extremely disturbing that so many women students are assaulted and harassed while at university or college.” – Olivia Bailey

One in ten students said that whilst studying at their current university or college, they had been physically assaulted in ways such as being choked, dragged, strangled or burnt.

One student described being slapped, kicked and choked when living with her ex-boyfriend during the first and second years at university. “I considered being choked the most dangerous,” she said. “He also threatened me.”

Rebecca Livesey-Wright, co-founder of ArtsFem, UAL’s feminist society, says: “We need to provide our young people with positive women and men role models. We need to show that men are strong and good fun when they do respect women, and that women are strong and good fun in ways other than submitting to the male gaze and desires.”

Worryingly, some students who took part in the survey mentioned being victim to inappropriate behaviour from lecturers. One female undergraduate explained: “One lecturer joked about how to cover up spiking a drink with a rape drug, then later mentioned they had been reported for misogyny.”

“Another lecturer showed a former student’s picture then made a suggestive comment about fantasising about what could have happened between them,” she added.

Date rape

The Hidden Marks survey showed a correlation between attacks on students and drugs.

With date rape drugs becoming more readily available, this isn’t unsurprising; almost one in ten respondents said they had been forced to drink or had taken drugs against their will before being attacked.

One respondent describes her experience in her university’s SU bar: “[Drink spiking] has happened to me and a few of my friends. What exactly am I supposed to do if my drink is spiked and a bouncer throws me out for being ‘drunk?’ Luckily, I had friends who got me home. Some other girls were not so lucky and were attacked when left alone outside, unable to defend themselves.”

A participant of an NUS study into ‘lad culture‘ at universities revealed how common harassment is: “I don’t know any of my female friends who haven’t had some kind of encounter that was harassment, whether it be verbal or physical, since they’ve been at university.”

These figures are only a small sample of what is happening in universities across the country; there is no conclusive data for violent or sexual abuse.

The NUS report only shows what has been discovered when cases have been reported to an authority or students have been able to discuss experiences in an anonymous survey.

“What if you were absolutely hammered, don’t remember anything but when you ‘come round’ someone is having sex with you? What does that count as?” – Hidden Marks survey respondent

There are also claims and counter-claims about who is to blame when attacks happen after a woman has had too much to drink, or has flirted or ‘led someone on’.

Although one would assume the answer to be obvious, one female undergraduate was left asking: “What if you were absolutely hammered, don’t remember anything but when you ‘come round’ someone is having sex with you? What does that count as?”

Hidden Marks revealed that only four per cent of female students who have been sexually assaulted have reported it to their university and only ten per cent of those have reported it to the police.

Not reporting the abuse means that rapists and abusers are left to continue attacking women.

Of the students who did not report serious sexual assault to the police, half said it was because they felt ashamed or embarrassed, and 43 per cent because they thought they would be blamed for what had happened to them.

“It is vital that universities create an environment where women feel confident to speak out against abuse,” says Sandra Horley, chief executive of national domestic violence charity Refuge.

“Women students need to know where they can seek help, and must feel sure that their reports will be taken seriously. Women have the right to enjoy university life, focus on their studies and plan for their futures, without fear of intimidation or violence,” she said.

Clearly, there are a number of reasons why students are not speaking out about their experiences.

One student said universities need to “make [students] aware of what counts as violence and harassment, when it becomes serious enough to report to the police and how we should react, who we should contact and how to make it stop.”

Wake-up call

Speaking about the Hidden Marks survey, Bailey said: “This report is a wake-up call. Universities and colleges must work more closely with local police, victim support services and health services in order to give victims the security and confidence to come forward.

“Institutions must also deal with all reported instances of assault or harassment with the utmost seriousness, so that students are not left in any doubt that such behaviour will not be tolerated.”

SUARTS president Shelly Asquith told Arts London News that while the SU is not currently running a campaign on combating domestic violence and sexual harassment, the union approaches the problem as and when they are made aware of cases.

SUARTS also offers advice and support by finding students help both within – and external to – the university.


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