What does Campus Justice mean for survivors of sexual violence?

Clare McGlynn
Professor of Law, Durham University

Magdalena Furgalska
ESRC PhD Candidate, University of Birmingham Law School

As more and more women and men disclose sexual violence and misconduct to their universities, questions arise as to what constitutes justice for these victim-survivors. In reporting to universities and not the police, are survivors seeking an alternative or additional form of justice? And, if so, what might ‘campus justice’ look like from survivors’ perspectives?

The possibilities of a kaleidoscopic lens

We might start answering these questions by considering what justice means to survivors of sexual violence more generally. In their recent article, ‘Kaleidoscopic Justice – Sexual Violence and Victim-Survivors Perceptions of Justice’, Clare McGlynn and Nicole Westmarland drew on interviews with twenty victim-survivors of sexual violence to develop the idea of ‘kaleidoscopic justice’. In essence, they found that, contrary to what is often assumed, justice is far more than a conviction and long prison sentence secured via the conventional criminal justice system. In fact, what constitutes justice for survivors is complex and nuanced. Justice is experienced as a constantly shifting pattern; an ever-evolving, lived experience. It is a process, rather than a result; there is no clear beginning or end. Justice is about recognition, dignity, voice, consequences, prevention and connectedness. This is a kaleidoscopic view of justice.

In this comment, we suggest that this idea of kaleidoscopic justice has much to offer us when thinking about campus justice, including why victim-survivors may be reporting to universities, what redress and outcomes some may be seeking and what this might mean in terms of actions required of universities. Further research is also required, focussing in particular on the justice interests of LGBTQI survivors, as well as those with disabilities and minority ethnic groups.

Consequences as Justice

When victim-survivors talked to McGlynn and Westmarland about what justice meant to them, women spoke of a wish for perpetrators to face ‘meaningful consequences’. Crucially, this was about more than punishment through the conventional criminal justice system. They were seeking accountability. They wanted offenders to take responsibility. They wanted a variety of differing outcomes and consequences.

This resonates with some survivors’ reasons for engaging with universities. For some, it may specifically be that they do not seek a punitive, criminal justice response. Karli, for example, who launched the #MeTooOnCampus campaign at Leicester University, was hesitant about reporting to the police because she felt she didn’t want to ‘ruin’ the perpetrators’ life. This reflects a difficult balancing exercise undertaken by many survivors when trying to manage their own experiences and the expectations of others.

On the other hand, reporting to their university can be about seeking the specific consequences that are within that institution’s control, particularly restrictions on the perpetrators’ physical presence around the university. For example, institutions can insist on no-contact orders, or more significantly can suspend or expel the perpetrator from the university. Karli reported to her university to try to protect herself from constantly ‘bumping into’ the perpetrator which was profoundly disturbing and destabilising. Eventually, she was forced to take a break from her studies, not least because the university response was not sufficient. Victoria has spoken about how following a sexual assault by another student, she found herself staying in her room to avoid the perpetrator. The ‘last time I saw him, I threw up’ she’s said. Controlling their space, as a meaningful consequence, is a significant justice interest for survivors.

Recognition as Justice

McGlynn and Westmarland also suggested that justice is predicated on recognition which is understood as a form of acknowledgement, conveying support; recognition that the person has been harmed and victimised. Recognition can come from a perpetrator, but is also sought from friends, families and society generally. In these cases, the recognition is sought from the institution providing the community, education and future hope of many students. Universities play a considerable role in their students’ lives and futures and justice, therefore, can be about institutional recognition of the significance of the experience; that they were harmed and victimised.

It’s also possible that for many campus survivors, recognition can come from engagement in campaigns and broader social movements. This is where justice expectations and the #MeToo social movement may interconnect. Using social media – such as #MeTooOnCampus, #MeTooPhD, #MeTooAcademia – may be about inclusionary spaces where the prevalence of sexual violence on campus can be exposed. It may also provide a forum where survivors feel less isolated, better understood; their experiences recognised. A sense of justice may here be felt through relational connection with others.

Prevention as Justice

Beyond conventional approaches to justice, key to survivors’ kaleidoscopic sense of justice was prevention. Many are seeking nothing less than a transformation of society; towards a society that recognises the harms of sexual violence and actively seeks to reduce its prevalence.

Prevention here means more than rehabilitation or deterrence of individuals – though that is included. It is also about (re)education across society; in schools, workplaces, public campaigns and challenging media representations.

As with survivors generally, when women report sexual violence to universities (and it is mainly women), they are often motivated by a concern for others. They hope to stop the perpetrator harming their friends and other students, perhaps through education and training, or processes involving forms of restorative justice.

Justice as prevention also provides an impetus for student-led campaigns to improve education and contribute to prevention through various activities such as consent, bystander and similar workshops and courses.

Voice as Justice

These campaigns are also connected to the justice interest of voice which has long been central to survivors’ perceptions of justice, with emphasis on being able to tell their story in their own way and on their own terms. Perhaps it is in the social justice movements of #MeToo and associated campus campaigns that voice as justice can be most keenly felt and secured.

Voice is also about meaningful dialogue; about participation in redress processes. Understandably, therefore, when shut out of university disciplinary processes, many survivors have shared their clear sense of injustice, such as where Cambridge University has insisted on a 28 day limit during which complaints must be made.

Connectedness as justice

In speaking of justice, Alice explained to McGlynn and Westmarland that ‘for me I think that justice is being able to live a normal life and a happy life despite perhaps a past history of sexual violence’. This is ‘connectedness’ as justice; as being valued as a whole person in society, not just as a victim, survivor or piece of evidence. Connectedness is about belonging in society; receiving societal support, being recognised. It is about redressing a victim’s shattered sense of belonging.

It seems that for many campus survivors, justice is also about this sense of belonging and connection. When disclosing to universities, many are seeking support to help them deal with their experiences and continue their education. This is about justice as re-establishing connection, about re-integration and being able to continue to be part of a community. Without such support, many survivors withdraw from university. Campaigns demanding better support mechanisms and counselling underscore connectedness as an imperative justice interest of victim-survivors.

But is there any justice yet?

While we may be gaining a clearer understanding of what campus justice might look like, securing such justice seems a long way off. Many survivors report that when disclosing to various university staff, they are met with disbelief, often blame or indifference. Caroline felt blamed when disclosing to her tutor, being asked questions such as ‘why didn’t I fight harder’. Faye says that ‘the indifference of the university still stings’ and she concludes ‘they should be ashamed of themselves’.

The recent report from the NUS and the 1752 group found university responses to reports of sexual misconduct between staff and students overwhelmingly unsatisfactory. It may well be that there are others who have had more positive experiences. But the widespread dissatisfaction at university responses suggests that there is much work to be done by universities to respond to rising numbers of complaints of sexual violence.

Meaningful consequences are also hard to find. While there are reports of expulsions, suspensions and no-contact orders, other evidence suggests few institutions are responding appropriately to findings of sexual violence and misconduct.

Only in the area of prevention and education are there glimmers of hope. Some institutions are mandating consent, bystander or other such courses. Some are funding campaigns and working with students to challenge the misogynistic and rape cultures all too evident on university campuses across the UK.

What next?

Campus justice is about meaningful consequences for perpetrators, recognition of the experiences of survivors, participatory dialogue and voice and, ultimately, prevention of further sexual violence and misconduct. Movements for campus justice demonstrate how demands for individual and social justice are intertwined; where justice for one cannot be felt until there is justice for all. While there is little justice yet, universities do offer the potential to realise the kaleidoscopic justice interests of survivors. Therefore, urgent action is required by universities to meet these expectations and begin to offer a sense of justice to survivors of sexual violence and misconduct.

This blog follows the publication of C McGlynn and N Westmarland,’Kaleidoscopic Justice: Sexual Violence and Victim Survivors’ Perceptions of Justice’ (2019) 28(2) Social & Legal Studies 179-201.  The paper is available under an open access license at the link below.


Clare McGlynn is a Professor of Law at Durham University with over twenty years of experience working with governments, policy-makers and voluntary organisations to reform laws relating to pornography, sexual violence and image-based sexual abuse, including ‘revenge porn’ and voyeurism. She played a central role in the adoption of new laws across the UK criminalizing the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, ‘upskirting’ and the possession of extreme pornography, regularly giving evidence before the Scottish and UK Parliaments and engaging in media and public debates. Her research with sexual violence survivors seeks to understand their perspectives on justice and the possibilities of restorative justice. She is the co-editor of Rethinking Rape Law: international and comparative perspectives (2010) and Feminist Judgments: from theory to practice (2010); and author of The Woman Lawyer: making the difference (1998) and Families and the European Union (2006).

Magdalena Furgalska LLB LLM MA, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Birmingham Law School, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Her research focuses on the lived experience of mental health, advance consent to care and the idea of social justice. She utilises socio-legal methodologies in her research. Magdalena is also a researcher at the World Health Organisation. Her focus there is on legal issues surrounding the access to safe abortion.

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