“The first person I told asked me how much I had been drinking. The second person I told said that I would be ruining his life. The third person I told said it wasn’t a university issue. The fourth person I told asked me why I had waited so long to tell anyone.” – Anonymous student survivor (2016)
It is impossible to say, with certainty and precision, exactly how prevalent sexual assault at universities in Australia is. The data simply isn’t there – which in itself is telling.
But from the information that does exist, it is clear that the prevalence is concerning. This is made apparent in a submission researched and written by the advocacy group, End Rape on Campus Australia, provided to the Australian Human Rights Commission last month.
The experience of sexual assault support services, the authors’ own experiences, and emerging research in the field suggests that Australian university students are experiencing sexual assault at high levels.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics currently estimates that 1 in 5 women in Australia, and 1 in 25 men have experienced sexually assault since the age of 15.
The highest risk group for sexual assault victimisation is women aged 15-19, and women aged 18-34 are more than twice as likely to have experienced sexual assault within the last year, compared to adult women in general.
Perpetrators of sexual offences are also most likely to be men aged in their early twenties.
It is evident that being of university age is a risk factor for both experiencing and perpetrating sexual assault.
“Attitudes which minimise sexual assault, shift blame onto victims or normalise non-consensual activity create a climate in which sexual assault is both more likely to occur, and less likely to be recognised and reported.” Connecting the Dots: Understanding Sexual Assault in Australian Universities.
In 2016, Channel 7’s Sunday Night program conducted the largest ever Freedom of Information (FOI) investigation into reported rates of sexual assault and harassment at Australian Universities. All 39 universities were targeted by the FOI investigation but at the time of the program’s airing in October 2016 only 27 universities had complied with the FOI request.
The results showed that in the past five years, 575 official complaints of sexual harassment and assault had been made to those universities and 145 reports related to specifically to rape.
The 575 reports resulted in just 6 expulsions.
One of the co-authors of Connecting the Dots, Nina Funnell, says this is emblematic of another sobering reality about sexual assault at universities: the organisational response has been woefully inadequate.
“Across the sector, institutional response to sexual assault is often appalling,” Funnell says. “Very often survivors report there is an attempt to cover up or minimise their experiences. There is a severe institutional betrayal that follows the experience of sexual assault.”
“Too often, our universities have dealt with sexual assault and harassment of students by turning a blind eye, by claiming it is not their responsibility or, most shamefully, by actively covering up assaults,” Professor Catharine Lumby wrote in the submission’s foreword. “It is time to face the evidence and put a full stop to harassment and assault on campus.”
Universities are failing students in this regard and it’s difficult to say that is set to change.
“The universities certainly want to give the appearance of reform and doing the hard work but in reality a lot of that is about damage control and reputation management,” Nina Funnell says. “On the residential front, there are some colleges like St Leo’s at the UNiversity of Queensland, that are absolutely embracing the challenge and leading the way in addressing these issues by undertaking the cultural change work. However there are a stack of colleges that are lagging behind and aren’t showing that kind of leadership.”
Community campaigners Fair Agenda, recently surveyed college halls and residences attached to Australian universities. Only one in six residences said they would run sexual assault prevention training involving a suitably qualified sexual assault service in 2017. Of the 214 residential facilities contacted, just 35 indicated they would run training as per the best practice national guidelines.
A lack of a coordinated and proactive response to sexual violence at universities and colleges, at an institutional and organisation level, has enabled the problem to persist.
By treating instances of sexual harassment, assault as private matters, universities have framed these incidents as rare, disconnected, and random. The authors of Connecting the Dots say this has legitimised several problematic interventions.
“Many of the responses, such as promises to increase lighting around campus or offering free self-defence classes, draw on myths about sexual assault and rape (such as that most rape is committed by strangers in dark side alleys) while failing to address the perpetrators of violence at all.”
It is diabolical given the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes that underpin sexual violence, and the extent to which sexual assault on campus has been culturally trivialised.
The Connecting the Dots report included several recent examples of this:
- In 2009, students at the University of Sydney created a Facebook group called “Define statutory: pro-rape, anti-consent”. One of the members of the Facebook group had reportedly already been accused of raping a female student from a neighbouring college earlier that year.
- Also in 2009, graffiti was found in a residential college at the University of Sydney reading ‘they can’t say no with a cock in their mouth’ and ‘any hole is a goal’, and university revues featured skits about Rohypnol being used to ‘help a male student get laid’.
- In 2013, residents at the University of Sydney’s Wesley College distributed stubby holders bearing the words “It’s not rape if it’s my birthday”.
- In 2015 students at a residential college at the University of Queensland surrounded a female student chanting “no means yes, yes means anal”.
- In April 2016, male students from UNSW were filmed chanting a college song which included the lyrics: ‘I wish that all the ladies were little red foxes and if I were a hunter I’d shoot up in their boxes; I wish that all the ladies were buns in the oven, and if I was a baker I’d cream them by the dozen; I wish that all the ladies were holes in the road, and if I was a dump truck, I’d fill them with my load.’
- In May 2016 students at Wesley College, University of Sydney were exposed for having published a ‘Rackweb’ in their annual journal, which ‘slut-shamed’ women for hooking up with men, and labelled female students ‘bitches’, ‘hoes’ and ‘sluts’, also giving awards for ‘best ass’, ‘best cleavage’ and ‘biggest pornstar’.
The attitudes entrenched in these anecdotes are dangerous. They contribute to, and legitimise sexual assault by creating permissive communities where the behaviour of perpetrators is tolerated, while survivors are blamed for the sexual violence they experience.
That is the root of rape culture, which evidently remains alive and well on far too many campuses.
As hundreds and thousands of students begin, or return to, university in Australia this week, it is worth considering. If Australia universities are unable – or unwilling – to address this, are they really able to educate future generations?
If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault or domestic violence, support is available by contacting 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.