Heather Savigny


Universities are increasingly using Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) as a means to cover up sexual assault cases.  In 2019, the former Universities minister Chris Skidmore called for the stopping of this misuse of NDAs. Despite this, according to the BBC, Universities are still attempting to use NDAs to silence victims of sexual assault.


To sign an NDA also means that perpetrators remain protected. The patriarchy remains intact as the boys close ranks to protect each other. I don’t know if it is arrogance, stupidity, or mendacity (and I am not talking about the Conservative government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis here). But the utter refusal to accept that women are being harmed within Universities, remains, sadly, a huge problem.


NDAs are becoming a regular feature of the UK Higher Education landscape. They originate from the world of business and were initially used to protect trade secrets. Rather than protect ‘trade secrets’ NDAs are now also functioning to: reinforce cultural ‘norms’ - that it is OK to bully and sexually harass women, inflict further violence on women by preventing them from using their most powerful asset: their voices, and to protect perpetrators of sexual abuse, harassment and assault.


Sara Ahmed argues that to name the problem is to be positioned as the problem’.  It is already predominantly women who are positioned as the problem in sexual assault cases. NDAs reinforce this structural positioning by silencing the woman while male perpetrators (and predators) are protected, and left free to assault other women.  NDAs silence women and their experiences, which in turn sends the cultural signal to other women that existing structures do not work in their interests. Moreover, it raises the question: what is the point of making a complaint about sexual assault if the end result is an NDA? Women are sent the message that predators can get away with their behaviour.  But,  if we speak up and out, they can’t.


GDPR is often given as a reason for refusing to disclose outcomes of sexual assault allegations. Whether this is legally accurate or not really does not matter. Because what this reason does is further reinforce the message that men can get away with it. And they do. Primarily this works by positioning women as the problem which  also becomes a problem for women. This is because we cannot stop those men if their very existence is protected by the structures that are supposed to protect everyone, irrespective of gender and race.


If we want to see an end to sexual harassment on campus of, and by, students and staff, we cannot continue to accept the use of NDAs as a means to cover this up.


#MeToo was heralded as a moment when women could speak up and be believed about their own experiences. Women are actually credible authors of experiences involving their own bodies.  But we also know that #MeToo was also nothing new. Aphra Benn’s 1670 play ‘The Forc’d Marriage’ demonstrated how society was built on male violence through the exploration of the constraints imposed upon women in marriage; Sojourner Truth spoke out for women of colour at an 1851 women’s rights rally, where only white women’s interests had been articulated;  In 1987, bell hooks drew on Truth’s speech and powerfully reshaped feminist thinking; and more recently, Sara Ahmed reminds us that a feminist life is not always an easy one. But to live a feminist life is to live a rich and rewarding life. 


An NDA is about secrecy, silencing of women’s voices and experiences and protection of the patriarchal structures which work in these men’s interests. Throughout the history of feminism, we have been repeatedly shown the significance of women using their voice.  Voice is the most powerful weapon women have. We have to change the game rules.


Author biography


Heather Savigny was Professor of Gender, Media and Politics at De Montfort University. She tweets at @heathersavigny.  Her book ‘Cultural Sexism: The Politics of feminist Rage in the #MeToo Era’ is available here. Image credit: Pixabay.