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Commentator Bettina Arndt is publicly petitioning to have Sydney University take action against five students who demonstrated outside a speech on her “Fake Rape Crisis Campus Tour”. By Alex McKinnon.

Bettina Arndt’s campus tour

On September 11, commentator and former sex therapist Bettina Arndt was scheduled to speak at the University of Sydney as part of her “Fake Rape Crisis Campus Tour”. Arndt’s central claim is that rates of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses, highlighted by campaigns such as End Rape on Campus, are being artificially inflated by campus feminists to stoke anti-male sentiment.

“There is no rape crisis,” Arndt says on her GoFundMe page for the tour. “Universities across the country chose to kowtow to a tiny group of feminist activists rather than celebrate our safe campuses.”

Hosted by the Sydney University Liberal Club, Arndt’s speech stirred controversy on campus. Student protesters, organised by the Students’ Representative Council’s Wom*n’s Collective, blocked entry to the lecture hall where the speech was to take place. Attendees had to shove through the crowd to enter the room.

Arndt urged attendees to film the protest on their phones before calling the police, according to reports from campus newspaper Honi Soit. Officers arrived and escorted protesters off the premises, and the talk proceeded as planned.

As with recent speaking tours from provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, Nigel Farage and Julien Blanc, the controversy and protests around Arndt’s tour have served to drum up publicity. A similar talk that was set to be held at La Trobe University in Melbourne was briefly cancelled and then rescheduled. On Twitter, Arndt seemed delighted.

“Oh Boy, we are really on a roll here. My little campus tour is causing a bit of a stir,” she wrote to her supporters. “What a thrilling, exhausting time we have had in the past few weeks.”

Federal government ministers and conservative media personalities have been quick to praise Arndt as the latest free speech hero threatened by a censorious left-wing culture on university campuses. 2GB’s Alan Jones, the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt and the Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine have all jumped in to back her in the past fortnight.

“This buck stops firstly with the universities themselves … Why can’t they all lift themselves to the optimal standard of enhancing free, open and civil public debate on campus?” Attorney-General Christian Porter asked in The Australian. In a meeting with the vice-chancellors of the Group of Eight universities, Education Minister Dan Tehan floated the idea of forcing student activists to pay for the security at events they protest against.

But in the wake of the Sydney University protests, Arndt has gone further than the regular culture war back and forth. This week, she set up a page on the website Change.org, naming five female students as the “key organisers of the protest” and urging her supporters to sign a petition demanding that the university “take action against the named protesters”. An accompanying video included footage of the students taken from the protest, and screenshots from their Facebook profiles.

Arndt alleged that the five breached the University of Sydney’s code of conduct provisions against bullying and harassment. She demanded that they be disciplined. She has lodged a formal complaint with University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence and asked him to refund the money the Liberal Club paid to hire private security for the event.

On her GoFundMe page, Arndt said the complaints were “designed just as a first stage” in a larger campaign to have the students punished. “We are organising extensive media coverage regarding my request for action by the university and have plans to follow up, with legal action if necessary,” she wrote.

SRC Wom*n’s Officer Maddy Ward was one of the students named in the video. She says the five women have received abusive and threatening messages since Arndt named them. One such email, seen by The Saturday Paper, reads: “As long as you keep thinking with/shouting out of your vile, vapid and vicious vaginas, you will ensure that your whole Sex is a loathsome laughingstock in terms of human empowerment and true Sexed equality.”

“If it weren’t for the campus rape culture, those chicks would never get a shag,” reads one of the comments under the YouTube video embedded on Arndt’s page.

Ward rejects Arndt’s assertions about who was affected by the protest. “Regardless of how rowdy that protest got, it’s incomparable to the pain Bettina is causing to thousands of survivors in universities across the country hearing some commentator denounce their experiences,” she says. “It doesn’t compare to the thousands of trolls on the internet saying hideous, awful things about myself and other activists.”

Arndt told The Saturday Paper: “I do not condone online abuse and can imagine that comes as a shock to people who are more used to dishing it out than receiving personal abuse”.

“It is strange that these young feminists would think it appropriate to abuse a woman old enough to be their grandmother,” Arndt said, pointing to a Facebook post by one of the named protesters, who called her a “reptilian sexist creep”.

This is not the first time Ward has attracted the ire of prominent conservatives. In June, New South Wales state Labor MP Greg Donnelly lobbied members of Sydney University’s senate to discipline her for protesting against an O-Week stall hosted by the anti-abortion group LifeChoice. Ward was suspended for a semester before an investigation downgraded her punishment to a written warning.

Ward wrote to Donnelly in September after her suspension was overturned: “Did you know that complaints proceedings at the University of Sydney are supposed to remain confidential? I guess not, because you raised it in NSW Parliament,” she said. “Honestly, it would be flattering were it not so scary.”

“I don’t realise how insane my life is until I talk to friends who work in bars and people outside of student politics,” says Ward, in the wake of Arndt’s formal complaint. “It’s very hard to step back and keep perspective.”

On her GoFundMe page, Arndt claims that “Change the Course”, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2017 study on sexual assault and harassment in universities, “showed there is no rape crisis”.

“Only 0.8 percent of students claimed to be sexually assaulted over the previous year, including incidents on public transport to and from campus,” Arndt wrote. “A stranger brushing up against a girl on a train is not what most of us think of as rape on campus.”

Arndt arrived at her figure by halving the AHRC report’s finding that 1.6 per cent of students were assaulted in a university setting in 2015 and/or 2016, including travelling to and from campus. The report asked respondents about their experiences with sexual assault over two calendar years, while figures on sexual harassment were reported for individual years, as they were more common.

University Australia figures state there were 1,457,209 enrolled students in 2016. Even by Arndt’s 0.8 per cent figure, that would mean some 11,657 students were sexually assaulted in a university setting that year, or about 32 a day. In 2016, 21 per cent of students reported being sexually harassed in a university setting – totalling more than 300,000 individual cases, or more than 800 a day.

Ward says the real numbers are likely far higher. “Bettina’s whole schtick is that we’re somehow waging a war against men on campus with our awful scary sexual assault campaign,” she says. “It benefits her to make out like we’re inflating figures. In reality, the figures we have of sexual assault on campus are far lower than the reality, because people under-report.”

Ward says that beyond the debate over statistics, there is one inaccuracy Arndt has put into the public domain. At several points in the video Arndt uploaded to YouTube, an unknown woman is incorrectly identified as SRC Wom*n’s Officer Jessica Syed.

“We have no idea who it is in the video. We can’t find her. Jess looks nothing like her,” says Ward. “This is the third or fourth time this has happened this year, where the conservative press has identified another woman of colour – who doesn’t even look vaguely like Jess – as Jess. In a weird way, it’s actually protected her from a lot of the online abuse, because conservatives just can’t identify her.”

When informed of the inaccuracy, Arndt asked The Saturday Paper to supply a photo of Syed to compare with the woman in the video. When contacted with Arndt’s request, the Wom*n’s Collective replied: “She can google it.”

“I apologise for wrongly naming the woman depicted in our video as Jessica Syed,” Arndt told The Saturday Paper. “A number of students at the event had inspected the photograph prior to posting of our video and felt we had the right person. We have now found a photograph of Syed to use in our video. We will replace the photo soon. I will be happy to explain the error in blog posts.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Agony Arndt". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media's morning editor.