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Center of Excellence Women and Science

Gender-Based And Sexualized Violence In Higher Education


Most of the literature referenced in the page originates from English speaking countries. On the one hand, this explains the use of technical terms, e.g. “Survivor” or “Bystander” of English terms, that are used also in German academic and grey literature on this topic. On the other hand, the use of English terminology signals that the discourse in Germany seeks to link to the English research discourse, but more importantly, that an inclusive and non-stigmatizing terminology (cf. Metzner 2018) also needs to be developed in this field.

Gender-based violence and violence against women is one core field of activity of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). A database of the EIGE collates legal definitions of key acts of gender-based violence such as sexual harassment, stalking and rape from all EU Member States. 

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe took action against sexism in form of a recommendation in 2019 (Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers 2019). Therein, the Council of Europe defines sexism as any acts or gestures, visual representations, words, practices or behaviors based on the idea that a person or a group of persons is inferior due to their sex. If these acts are connected with one of the purposes – to violate the dignity of a person or to cause physical, sexual, psychological or socio-economic harm to a person, to create an intimidating or degrading environment, to prevent the fulfilment of human rights of a person or to maintain or reinforce gender stereotypes – counteracting measures should be taken.

A  video from the Council of Europe illustrates what sexism is and what effects and consequences everyday sexism can have.

According to the General Equal Treatment Act (German abbreviation: AGG), sexual harassment is “an unwanted conduct of a sexual nature […] with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person concerned, in particular where it creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” (section 3(4) AGG; official translation). This includes unwanted sexual acts, requests to carry out sexual acts, physical contact of a sexual nature, comments of a sexual nature, as well as the unwanted showing or public exhibition of pornographic images.

In Germany, however, according to the Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch / StGB) sexual harassment is only subject to criminal law if a person “touches another person in a sexual manner, and thereby harasses that person” (section 184i StGB; official translation).

In its definition paper “What is Sexual Harassment”, the United Nations WomenWatch Division gathers a list of examples of verbal, non-verbal and physical sexual harassment.

More information on the legal situation in Germany is available here.

The concept of “gender-based violence” (GBV) was established particularly in Anglo-Saxon research (Hearn and Parkin 2001) and includes all forms of violent acts such as sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual coercion, forced marriage, and stalking (SOAS University of London 2015).

In view of AGG section 3, the Federal Conference of Gender Equality Officers in Higher Education in Germany (German abbreviation: bukof) refers to “sexualized discrimination and violence”, which includes “all behavior and actions [...] that are insulting, humiliating, undesirable by those affected and are experienced as pejorative and degrading”. Just as in the case of “sexual harassment”, the degrading of the victimized person through a choice of words or actions that create a power differential between the perpetrator and the survivor plays a central role.

In 2018, Karen Boyle challenges the synonymical use of “gender-based violence” and “violence against women” theoretically and calls for an adequate differentiation of the connections between gender and violence.

Research on gender-based and sexualized violence is carried out in many different scientific disciplines. As a result of the diversity of disciplinary perspectives – and in order to better understand the preconditions and consequences of acts of violence – typologies and classification systems of gender-based acts of violence have been developed. In the case of gender-based violence, such as rape, a distinction is often made on the basis of a possible relationship between the perpetrator and the survivor. This classification is based on the knowledge that different types of violence occur under different circumstances, and that these circumstances have different effects on the survivors and the consequences associated with experiences of violence, e.g. the probability of reporting such acts.

Other classifications relate to the way in which gender-based violence was executed. Nearly all research in this field distinguishes between acts of violence which involve physical violence, respectively in which physical violence was irrelevant (Krebs et al. 2007), e.g. because the victimized person was unable to respond.  

Other acts of violence, such as technology-facilitated stalking or the unsolicited and unwanted sending of messages and images with sexual content predict digital victimization (DeKeseredy et al. 2019). The reactions in both, the social environment of the perpetrators and of the survivors seem to be key for whether the act is judged as one of violence and its effects. The study shows that the encouragement of such actions by fellow students, such as sending sexual messages and pictures or online stalking, legitimizes the behavior of the perpetrators. Moreover, the study supports a significant association between these types of violence and intimate partner violence and other types sexualized violence.