Culture

Women Are Taking A Huge Stand Against Sydney Uni Today And Calling For Action On Sexual Assault

"They treat it as a public relations issue, rather than an issue of student safety.”

This article discusses sexual assault.

Sydney University Women’s Officers from the last ten years have joined together this morning to publish an open letter to the Vice Chancellor condemning the university’s response to sexual assault and harassment.

“We are writing as a united group to highlight that for well over a decade, the university has been aware of the issue of sexual assault on campus,” the letter reads. “For over a decade calls to change this culture have gone unanswered. The same stories of rape and harassment are repeated over and over. Periodically, a particularly high-profile case may break into mainstream media, but as the media cycle moves on, and damage control measures are implemented, the issue is once again put to the bottom of the agenda.”

This Has Been A Long Time Coming

While recent reports of ‘slut shaming’ and sexual assault have been reported in the media, Anna Hush, the current co-Women’s Officer at Sydney University, says the letter is not about any single incident. “It’s about the ongoing cultural refusal to admit there’s a problem and take real action,” she told Junkee. “They treat it as a public relations issue, rather than an issue of student safety.”

Hush also claims the university relies on turnover of student activists as a means of resisting the long-term work required to make cultural change. The letter states: “For an entire decade we have been raising the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus with the administration. For an entire decade we have been met with resistance to change.

“It seems to us that the University has deliberately stalled action on sexual assault, assuming that once Wom*n’s Officers and other activists finish their term, or graduate from university, the institutional knowledge required for a sustained campaign on this issue is lost. This assumption is unfounded.”

The open letter challenges the university to undertake a number of actions to understand and address the extent of sexual misconduct. The Women’s Officers want wide-ranging research to examine not just the prevalence of sexual assault, but the underlying attitudes towards sexuality, consent and gender.

The letter also asks for ongoing education and training for staff and student groups, and clearly established policy and procedures for reporting and responding to sexual assault and harassment.

One of the most pressing issues for students is how they manage to continue with their studies after they’ve been the victim of sexual assault or harassment. Going to class with their abuser, or having to share living space in the colleges with a rapist can be unimaginably traumatic. Particularly if they feel that university is more concerned about protecting its reputation, or worse, the reputation of the perpetrator, than caring for the victim.

Last year, the award-winning documentary, The Hunting Ground, examined the issue of rape on campus in America. While there are some differences in the operation of American and Australian universities, the underlying attitudes about sexual violence were strikingly similar. The most damaging one is the myth of false reports.

Despite overwhelming evidence that more than 95 percent of rape allegations are true, victims are often not believed, or worse, blamed for sexual violence enacted against them. It’s astounding and disheartening that this needs to be said so often, but clothes, alcohol and victim’s behaviour do not cause rape. The only cause of rape is a rapist’s choice to commit rape. And when they’ve made that choice, they should not be protected from the consequences.

But, as The Hunting Ground pointed out, rapists are far more likely to sue universities than victims, reputational damage is a greater concern than student safety, and universities are not doing enough to protect and support students who have been sexually assaulted.

Hush says this is absolutely true of Australian student experiences. “Survivors report that they have been disbelieved, blamed for their abuse, silenced or abandoned by the institution. We wrote this letter because we are tired of the university’s inaction. We are using our collective voice to urge the university to step up and take charge on this issue.”

Though they didn’t get back to our calls yesterday, Sydney University has refuted the claims of inaction in a statement to Fairfax. “Any suggestion that the University has stalled action on assault on campus is untrue,” it reads. “It remains deeply disturbing that the prevalence of sexual assault is not zero. However an extensive campus survey has demonstrated that the incidence of sexual assault on campus is much lower than in the general community. This survey was conducted with support and input from the student community who helped to guide the structure and nature of questions in the survey.”

The Broader Problem

Earlier this year, Sydney University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor’s office released a report on a survey of just under 2,000 of its 56,000 enrolled students at the university. It claimed that “a majority of students felt positive about the University of Sydney’s concern for their welfare”. Though it also found that 40 percent of women surveyed had experienced some form of unacceptable behaviour, and only 1 percent of people who experienced sexual assault, harassment or rape reported it to the university. Of those who did, 41 percent said that the university’s formal procedures did not help them deal with the problem.

The report ascribed the low reporting rate to a lack of knowledge about support services, and it was at pains to point out that only a small percentage of the respondents had experienced rape and that most incidents took place off-campus. The recommendations in the report were mostly about providing policy statements and clearer communications. It’s not clear how many of those recommendations have yet been implemented, but in their statement this morning the university also pointed to a hotline which connects staff to counsellors and training with the Rape Crisis Centre.

Hush says this this was just a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. “It’s a difficult thing to change, it’s a systematic cultural issue and takes a lot of work, and there’s no financial incentive for them to do that work”.

Back in 2014, Fairfax reported that Australia’s leading universities (with the exception of ANU) had backed away from recommendations by a 2011 review led by then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to gather more information about sexual assault on campus. Even then, people like the Human Rights Commission’s Alexandra Shehadie and University of Melbourne’s principal of Janet Clarke Hall, Damian Powell, were attributing this to “fear of media repercussions” and “perception of reputational risk”. Being known as the ‘rape university’, it seems, is far worse than being the ‘rape university’.

Now, Universities Australia and The Hunting Ground Australia Project (a local initiative I have worked with which bases itself off the findings of the film) have asked the Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake Australia’s first-ever national prevalence survey on university student experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The survey will launch today at UNSW and will reach across 39 universities to provide robust data on the scale and nature of student’s experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

While she supports this initiative, Hush says that just asking about experiences of sexual violence is not enough. “Those results are irrelevant unless we know what the attitudes and understanding are around consent, sexuality and gender; that’s where the work to make real change has to happen.”

Feature image via Nina Dillon Britton/Twitter.

Jane Gilmore is a Melbourne based writer and editor. She blogs at janegilmore.com and tweets at @janetribune.