Students Say Australian Unis “Can No Longer Hide” About Sexual Assault On Campus


This article discusses sexual assault.

An Australian Human Rights Commission report released yesterday dropped some pretty damning statistics on sexual harassment and assault on university campuses. Among the most sobering numbers: 51 percent of university students were sexually harassed at least once in 2016, 21 percent of university students were sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016, and 87 percent of those sexually harassed in a university setting did not make a formal report to their university.

That last stat is likely because only 6 percent of students thought their university was doing enough to provide clear and accessible information on support services and reporting mechanisms for sexual harassment and assault.

The report is being touted by universities as shocking, and as a landmark moment in the fight against sexual assault on campus. Universities Australia wrote that universities will take “swift and strong action” in response to the report’s “challenging” findings, and the University of Sydney told Junkee they had already begun collaborating with students on the issue.

But while this is the first time data on sexual assault on campus has been available on this scale, student activists and campaigners who have been advocating on this issue for years say the results and recommendations aren’t that surprising — it’s just that universities haven’t been listening.

What Did The Report Actually Say?

The AHRC report confirmed that sexual violence is affecting university students at “unacceptable rates”, in the words of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. The report highlights high levels of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses, extremely low reporting rates, and extremely low confidence in universities’ reporting and support services.

These results come from a survey of around 30,000 students across all Australian universities. They additionally highlight women, LGBTQ, Indigenous and disabled students as at-risk groups for sexual assault. Crushingly, the report notes that the majority of bystanders who witnessed sexual assault or harassment on campus did not report it, most commonly because they did not think it was serious enough to report, or they did not know what to do.

The report makes a number of recommendations for universities to adopt in response to this data, aimed at improving reporting and support mechanisms, as well as students’ awareness of these. Universities Australia — along with a number of Australian universities — has made initial commitments to respond.

What Are Students Saying About It?

“These results are not shocking to any of the countless feminist activists and survivors who have been working for decades on this issue,” University of Sydney Student Union President Courtney Thompson told Junkee. Rather, these staggering rates of assault — as well as strategies to reduce them — are ideas student assault survivors and activists have been trying to convey to universities for years.

“Unfortunately, at the moment, the university has a stronger removal policy on posters than it does on rapists,” USyd co-Women’s Officer Katie Thorburn said of the University of Sydney’s approach.

“The report’s been used as a great stalling tactic by the university. They just won’t believe survivors, and they’ll say they’re waiting for the report to be released. Hopefully having the report means they can no longer hide behind there not being data.”

This response isn’t localised to the University of Sydney. Representatives of student unions from the University of Melbourne and UNSW, as well as activists from national initiatives like End Rape On Campus have echoed the idea that these results are unsurprising to anyone who has listened to the work of survivors and activists over the years.

“We have student newspaper reports that go back to the 1960s that show student activists were coming up against the same institutional roadblocks that today’s activists are facing,” said End Rape On Campus ambassador Nina Funnell. USyd student newspaper Honi Soit documents instances as recent as last year where university management tried to shut down protests highlighting campus sexual assault by turning off lights and asking audiences to leave rather than hear students out.

That makes her sceptical about whether the report will lead to real change. “The thing that has let me down most as an activist is the University’s response. Time and time again they’ll just provide words, but no concrete actions. Until I see a concrete move by the universities, I’ll continue to be sceptical.”

Mostly, she cautions universities and the media to remember to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and instead centre survivors in their responses to yesterday’s data.

“This is a survivors’ report, and it is because of the courage and bravery of survivors that finally universities have to act.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.auIn an emergency, call 000.

Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

Feature image via University of Sydney Women’s Collective/Facebook