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28 Sep | Guest Blog | Gender Equality

Exploring trauma-informed approaches to university policy and sexual harassment prevention

The first time I used the words ‘sexual misconduct’, it was in trying to understand what had happened to me. To this day, in this moment, I still hesitate to use the word rape – because it was not forceful, it was not violent, and because it was done to me by a man I was seeing at the time.

Trigger warning: some people may find the content of this post distressing

I confided in a friend that I didn’t feel like my story fit the ‘conventional rape narrative’ of stranger danger and violence, that I was drunk when it happened, that I had been drunk many times when men I hadn’t really known had touched, groped and assaulted me, but that I had also been sober and in relationship with others. The ambiguousness of these experiences made it hard to feel justified in speaking out or sharing space in these conversations about sexual violence. The phrase misconduct felt strong enough to indicate that something wrong had been done, that the conduct was violating, without opening myself up too much criticism. It felt safer than declaring I was a rape victim. I became active in rewriting the bylaws of the housing co-operative I lived in to allow survivors the right to void their contracts, move houses or remove perpetrators from their home, helping to create procedures and pathways for survivors like me who had been hurt by someone they lived with and needed somewhere safer. In doing so, I learned how common an occurrence it was in our community. I have only continued to realise how common these experiences are, on enormous scales.

In January of 2018, Judge Aquilina allowed over 100 women to testify against Larry Nassar, the man who had molested and abused them at Michigan State University as their doctor. She encouraged each and every one of them to share their story. Numerous reports of Nassar’s behaviour had been made to the administration at Michigan State, with reports dating back to the 1990s[1]. Yet nothing was done about it until a journalist published her investigation into the US Olympic Gymnastics team, to which Nassar was also a doctor for. I watched the aftermath while presidents and sports directors of my university resigned, a former politician was elected interim president only to also resign after making comments that the survivors of Nassar’s sex crimes were ‘enjoying their time in the spotlight’, and the university dismantled a historic women’s only space on campus, despite cries from the community about how many ways it had served them. All I could think was this is institutional betrayal happening right now.

Institutional betrayal is a concept described first by psychologist Jennifer Freyd[2], which refers to the wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution against people who depend on it, often through failing to prevent or respond supportively to the harm caused by others that occurred within the context of the institution.  It is vulnerable and often dangerous to put trust in legal, medical and mental health systems after experiencing sexual violence, because people risk disbelief, blame and refusals to help. The same can be true in universities. Institutions may prioritise reputation over recovery, may brush allegations under the rug to avoid accountability, or be unwilling to engage with the problem. When universities cover up sexual violence or make it difficult to report harassment, they undermine survivors’ recovery. The combination of silencing, invalidation and betrayal trauma can create an experience that feels like a ‘second rape’ for survivors. A secondary victimisation. Universities must understand the impact their decisions have on the members of their community, in order to do better. In order to cause less harm.

Trauma shapes people – it has shaped me. It has shaped my research interests and motivations. I am an activist turned researcher, and in 2019, I started investigating sexual harassment and institutional betrayal in universities in the United Kingdom. Trauma shapes people, but it also shapes places by making them feel unsafe. Academia is one such place that is shaped in such a way that reproduces trauma – through practices that make it difficult to be heard and seen, unclear guidelines for disciplinary actions, NDAs and gag orders, hiding perpetrators and burying allegations. Not doing enough to prevent sexual harassment from occurring was mentioned as one of the most common betrayal behaviours by graduate students in Smith and Freyd’s[2] study of campus safety. These harmful experiences can be felt throughout the community when harassment occurs, because we all suffer – not just those who are directly targeted. Research on bystander behaviour has shown that men and women alike experience worse psychological outcomes when there is a high frequency of sexual harassment in the workplace (known as ambient harassment)[3]. This means the effects of sexual misconduct can be felt by the individual, the group and the community at large.

In my PhD work, I argue that universities should take a trauma-informed approach to handling sexual misconduct, and ultimately should aim to become trauma-informed organisations. Trauma-informed approaches are grounded in an understanding and responsiveness to the impact of trauma and prioritise physical, psychological and emotional safety for all members of the organisation. There is good evidence to support the adoption of trauma-informed approaches to schools[4], to which I argue higher education should be no exception. Universities should resist revictimizing students and staff by responding to sexual violence with evidence-based practices that are rooted in an understanding of sexual violence as trauma. Further, a trauma-informed approach could benefit the wider student population, as its estimated that as many as two out of three school-age children are likely to have experienced at least one traumatic event by the age of 17 – soon after, many of these students will go off to university[5].

In my research, I am investigating how policies are used in prevention efforts and the impact that trauma-informed policy statements can have on the behaviour of bystanders. Organisations that are trauma-informed create opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment, and work to reverse the ‘power over’ abuses that are at the heart of sexual violence. This helps to heal the trauma that they can cause[6].The first place they can do this is in their codes of conduct, anti-harassment and disciplinary policies. Using recommendations from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA[7]) on writing trauma-informed policies, I am working to critically analyse the language these policies use to create policy statements to empirically test a trauma-informed approach. The intervention describes a university’s prevention efforts and provides either a compliance-oriented statement that references the Equality Act 2010, a zero-tolerance statement and a trauma-informed policy statement. In my review of 30 universities, I have found that the majority of sexual harassment policies still rely on a deterrence model, which emphases the fear of punishment by criminal law or university procedure in order to prevent sexual violence perpetration. These policies respond to the problem after it occurs, attempting to lessen the impact of sexual harassment by providing avenues to report, mediation services and disciplinary procedures. While these efforts are crucial, policies are tools that can and should be used to disrupt sexual violence as and before it occurs, not just in responding to it after. If changing policy language to reflect a ‘zero-tolerance stance’ to sexual violence has been shown to increase bystanders’ likelihood to report[8], I am curious what a trauma-informed approach can do.  

In so many ways, my baptism by fire into adulthood has been a slow discovery that the world is not safe – but it doesn’t have to be this way. So much of this work feels frustrating, it’s daunting to try to make recommendations to institutions that probably aren’t listening. Nevertheless, I am inspired by people like Judge Aquilina, who uses her power to serve justice and create a space for our voices to be heard. I am moved by her, and in that moment of gratitude, I remind myself to persist too.


  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/sports/larry-nassar-gymnastics-abuse.html
  2. Smith, C. P., & Freyd, J. J. (2013). Dangerous safe havens: Institutional betrayal exacerbates sexual trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(1), 119-124.
  3. Glomb, T. M., Richman, W. L., Hulin, C. L., Drasgow, F., Schneider, K. T., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1997). Ambient sexual harassment: An integrated model of antecedents and consequences. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 71(3), 309-328.
  4. Overstreet, S., & Chafouleas, S. M. (2016). Trauma-informed schools: Introduction to the special issue.
  5. Carlson, J. S., Yohannan, J., Darr, C. L., Turley, M. R., Larez, N. A., & Perfect, M. M. (2019). Prevalence of adverse childhood experiences in school-aged youth: A systematic review (1990–2015). International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 1-22.
  6. K Hopper, E., L Bassuk, E., & Olivet, J. (2010). Shelter from the storm: Trauma-informed care in homelessness services settings. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 3(1).
  7. https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence
  8. Jacobson, R. K., & Eaton, A. A. (2018). How organizational policies influence bystander likelihood of reporting moderate and severe sexual harassment at work. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 30(1), 37-62.

Rebecca Brunk, Research Student,  EGC and the School of Social & Political Sciences.

Rebecca holds a MA in Organizational Behaviour from the University of Leeds. Her thesis considered the influence that inclusive leadership has on organizational culture, analyzing the impact it has on women and LGBTQ+ employees from a cross cultural UK-US perspective.