Two weeks ago, the University of Sydney’s open day drew thousands of prospective students. For the university, it was one of the biggest events of the year – a chance to showcase the “innovative”, “world-class” and “world-leading” facilities and faculties.
During the parents’ information session, however, a far more confronting reality claimed the spotlight. Organised by the Students’ Representative Council’s Women’s Collective, protesters stormed the stage carrying mattresses spray-painted with messages such as “UNIVERSITY SILENCE PERPETUATES VIOLENCE”, “RED TAPE WON’T COVER UP RAPE”, “PROTECT STUDENTS NOT REPUTATION” and “WELCOME TO THE HUNTING GROUNDS”.
While university security guided parents out of the auditorium, Anna Hush, the 2016 women’s officer, read out 12 demands for addressing campus sexual assault and harassment. These demands had been tabled in an open letter published four days earlier, addressed to the vice-chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, and signed by 15 past and present women’s officers.
The demands included: that the university conduct a student-wide survey into attitudes towards sexual assault, gender and consent; that it commission an independent review of sexual assault and harassment reporting procedures; that it consult independent organisations to provide sex and ethics and bystander training to student groups; that it introduce specialised trauma training for any staff who may receive disclosures of sexual assaults; that it create an online module to educate students about sexual assault, which must be completed by all students once per semester; that it license the 2015 documentary on sexual assault at American colleges, The Hunting Ground, for screening each year for the next three years; that it create a clear policy statement detailing how sexual assault complaints will be stored, the time line and method of communicating with the complainant and the university’s powers to discipline perpetrators; and that it include in all unit of study outlines information approved by the current women’s officers about key policies and organisations relating to sexual harassment and assault.
“The intention was to bring public attention to the university’s approach to sexual assault, which is to treat it as a PR issue,” Hush told me this week. “We wanted to tell parents that if their child does get raped, the university won’t handle it well, don’t care about preventing it and are not going to support them through that experience.”
Six months ago, Melissa was sexually assaulted in her room in accommodation owned by the University of Sydney. The perpetrator was a friend and fellow student. He groped her under her clothes, kissed her breasts and removed her pants and underwear, despite repeated requests for him to stop. “I don’t know how long it all went on for,” Melissa told me. “I was paralysed with fear.”
A week after reporting the incident to security and her campus’s subdean for students, Melissa was told she had to complete an online form for it to be considered an official complaint. The online form was a generic one used for all matters. Questions in it include: “Have you taken steps to resolve this issue?” “If yes, please indicate the steps you have taken” and “If no, please explain the reasons why you have not taken steps to resolve the matter.”
The ongoing investigation into the matter has been even more problematic. It is protracted and, Melissa said, “shrouded in secrecy”. Not made aware of developments, Melissa, which is not her real name, has to push for updates and sometimes waits weeks for a reply. She has been instructed by the university to not discuss the matter. “Everything seems to be about protecting the perpetrators and the university’s reputation,” she told me. “Meanwhile, so far literally no action has been taken to help me or make me feel safe on campus. I cannot fathom how they think I would care about damaging the reputation of the man that sexually assaulted me.”
Other students at the university have similar stories, as do students from around the country. Sharna Bremner, the founder of the Australian branch of End Rape on Campus, an organisation formed in the United States and dedicated to ending campus sexual violence, has worked with many of them. In her six years involved in student support she has liaised with sexual assault survivors from the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Western Australia, University of Melbourne, Australian National University, University of South Australia and University of Adelaide.
She says the response of these universities to the cases of sexual assault and harassment she has handled has been “appalling”, marred by inertia, indifference and victim blaming. To change this, Bremner says there needs to be a complete overhaul of reporting procedures and a national implementation of the demands laid out by the women’s officers of the University of Sydney.
Linnea Burdon-Smith, the current women’s officer at ANU, concurs. “I believe that the ANU and all other Australian universities need to develop policies and procedures that are specifically for reporting sexual assaults. These policies and procedures need to be clearly communicated to students. These procedures need to support survivors and not increase the victim-blaming culture that is present in our community.”
Universities themselves reject accusations they have not handled the issue appropriately. Facing the most media attention, the University of Sydney has been the most vocal. “Any suggestion that the university has stalled action on assault on campus is untrue,” a public response to the letter issued by the past and present women’s officers read. “The university will continue to do whatever it can – including discussing many of the sensible recommendations outlined in the letter – to reduce the experience of sexual assault on campus.”
The university points to a campus-wide survey conducted in 2015, which found one in four respondents experienced sexual assault or harassment while enrolled as a student, and only 18.9 per cent of these people reported the incident to anyone. It also points out that it is currently undertaking training with the NSW Rape Crisis Centre to inform practices, and has recently instituted a helpline for staff who may have assaults disclosed to them, to ensure they receive advice from trained counsellors on how best to respond.
In February, Universities Australia, the nation’s peak body representing the university sector, launched Respect.Now.Always – a campaign involving Australia’s 39 universities – which seeks to prevent sexual violence by lifting the visibility of support services for students and assisting universities to share best-practice policies.
Last month, the campaign progressed into its second stage with the announcement of a national prevalence survey to be conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission. This survey will gather both quantitative and qualitative data on the scale and nature of campus sexual violence, and allow students to confidentially disclose incidents via the commission.
“This national survey will give our universities a robust evidence base to guide continuing improvements in policy and services across the sector. It’s a landmark piece of work and one that’s really important,” the deputy chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, told me. “Through this work, Australia’s 39 universities want to be very clear that sexual assault and sexual harassment are utterly unacceptable.”
One week after the survey was launched, Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the commission, told the ABC’s youth broadcaster, Triple J, that the 150 submissions that had already been received were “deeply disturbing”.
Bremner, along with every student representative I spoke with, acknowledged the Respect.Now.Always campaign and national survey are vital forward steps in overcoming this challenge. Their support, however, came with some criticism. “I think it is important to have a national survey, but on the other hand we know there is a problem,” Hush said. “At this stage, it’s a lot more important to be implementing changes.”
Burdon-Smith, noting that student leaders have been advocating for this type of survey for years, said: “It is infuriating that university administrations have ignored the lived experiences of students for so long and will only react to statistics.”
Nevertheless, she is hopeful the data gathered will push universities to take responsibility and change their procedures. How many do this, she said, will be the ultimate determinant of the survey’s success.
Melissa is still awaiting the outcome of the university’s investigation. There is no end date in sight. Meanwhile, it seems inevitable she will cross paths with the perpetrator from time to time on campus. “It fills me with anxiety constantly that I may see him.”
If you need help or support, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency call triple-0.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Campus assaults". Subscribe here.