Campus shame: One in five students sexually harassed at universities last year

Campus shame: One in five students sexually harassed at universities last year

We’ve all heard the stories of sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities. Some of us have experienced it firsthand. Now we have some solid data on the extent of the problem.

Today, the Australian Human Rights Commission released its long-awaited report of 30,000 students at 39 Australian universities on the issue, revealing assault and harassment is occurring at disturbingly high rates.

One in five students were sexually harassed at an Australian university last year. 1.6% of students were sexually assaulted at an Australian university setting in the past two years.

Colleges are particular areas of concern – with women four times as likely as men to be sexually assaulted in these settings.

As Sexual Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins put it while launching the report this morning:  “In a lecture theatre containing 100 students, at least one and possibly two students have been sexually assaulted in the past 2 years, 20 of those students would have been harassed in the past year.”

She said people described in submissions feeling anxious on campus because they were afraid of seeing perpetrators on campus. In some cases, students dropped out of universities all together.

A number of students reported being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted in their first week at university.

Jenkins said the majority of students had little knowledge on how to make a formal complaint to their university, something which aligns with the low rates of reporting harassment and assault in the broader community.

“One of the most common reasons for not reporting was that people did not know where to go and who to report to. It’s clear universities must do more to publicise their reporting services.”

She said of those who had reported assault, some shared stories of being told to “take it as a compliment” or to “consider drinking less”. One student who reported a rape at her sporting club later lost her place in the club, along with her friends.

Also addressing the press conference this morning, new Human Rights Commissioner Rosalind Croucher said the report highlighted shocking stories of assault and harassment.

She said one critical thing to note is the importance of support. “Support from those in positions of responsibilities. Support to ensure pathways to the desired response. And fundamentally, the support of those who are in the position of bystanders: friends and observers.”

She added that formal reporting pathways are essential, and possibly the easiest things to reform. “The hardest things are to get out the culture that lies behind,” she said. “Changing culture is something that has a long horizon and happens incrementally. Understanding the intricacies and delicacies of sexual exploration when young people are spreading their wings… Universities are in a key position to support young people in those journeys.”

Croucher said that in her experience, she would want more bystanders to support people who are subject to unwelcome sexual conduct. “I think to which the extent to which bystanders support and intervene … is a measure of the effectiveness of that cultural change. It’s fundamentally about a shift in peer dynamics. It has a long horizon. But that to me is the target of success.”

The findings of this report are bigger than than experiences of those at universities. Changing behaviours and cultures in universities has the potential to extend into our workplaces and into the broader community.

Below is an overview of the findings:


Contact 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732) 24-hour counselling. 

The new national University Support Line is available: 1800 572 224 The support line will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It will operate until 30 November 2017.

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