On Tuesday the Australian Human Rights Centre (AHRC) released its report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.
The report found that 51 percent of Australian university students had been sexually harassed at least once in 2016, and that just less than 7 percent of students were sexually assaulted at least once in 2015 or 2016. While media outlets reported on the ‘shocking’ results of the nationally distributed survey, it’s hard to say that any of this came as a surprise.
As a female student in my third year of study at the University of NSW, I had insight into what the report was going to say before it was even commissioned. The report tells us that 52 percent of students at UNSW had been sexually harassed in 2016, and 5.5 percent had been sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016. With only 727 students out of a possible 49,000 from the university responding to the survey, there’s a real possibility that the rates of harassment and assault are much higher. Almost weekly I hear stories from other students of harassment that they or others have experienced. These range from inappropriate touching in a nightclub to lewd comments on the bus. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stop here.
Some of the most difficult conversations I have had have involved close friends disclosing their experiences with sexual assault. Notice the word I use here – “friends”, plural. This is definitely not an isolated situation. It is an epidemic that is plaguing communities of young people around Australia.
It’s appropriate here for me to also disclose my response to the survey. I am one of the 51 percent that was sexually harassed in 2016. I am one of the 21 percent who has been sexually harassed in a university setting (on campus or at a university event off campus). Yet, somehow, I almost count myself lucky. My experiences of harassment haven’t been ‘that bad’. I’ve only had people stare at me to the point where I was uncomfortable, inappropriately grab me in a crowded bar, follow me home while trying to ask me out, and push and grab me when I decided I didn’t want to go home with them. I feel ‘lucky’, because for me, this harassment is where it has ended. For some students, it goes much further.
Frequently we hear that the residential colleges are breeding grounds for these disgusting behaviours. Indeed, 10 percent of the sexual assaults reported by the AHRC occurred in a university residence or college. For me, none of my sexual harassments occurred within this setting, despite living in a UNSW college for two years. In fact, in my experience, it was often my college peers who stepped in to stop sexual harassment occurring. But I’m not naïve. I understand that my experience of college has been completely different to that of others. I have heard of incidences of harassment and assault occurring in a residential situation at most universities. These environments, mostly full of alcohol-fuelled teenagers out of home for the first time, can cultivate a culture in which sexual harassment and sexual assault are not recognised or properly condemned.
The AHRC recommendation that residential colleges should all commission an independent review into these issues is well-founded. Institutional change is required in colleges to minimise the incidences of sexual assault and harassment. However, university efforts can’t stop here. Over a quarter of students were sexually harassed or assaulted in a university setting or while travelling to and from university. Change in colleges is desperately needed, but universities cannot ignore the fact that these issues are rampant across entire institutions. The steps taken now will shape future university cultures.
It’s very much time for universities to get it right.
This article first appeared on p.19 of the Newcastle Sunday newspaper on 6th August 2017 .