Foreign students and sexual assault
Warning: this article contains descriptions of sexual assault.
Iris* was 18 when she arrived in Australia to study at the University of Sydney. By the time she moved back to China, five years later, she had been raped six times by a tutor at the university.
But Iris had fought back: she had reported the assaults to the university and the police; navigated a complex foreign legal system alone in a second language; and seen her attacker prosecuted, only for the trial to fall apart at the last moment.
When her case failed, Iris said, “I blamed myself and felt shameful. I have already put lots of effort and also, I need justice … I want to publish my story because otherwise I will feel like I am useless and regretful for my whole life.”
For international students, her story is all too familiar.
The assaults began in 2016, when Iris was 22 – she was sheltered and a regular at Bible study. Like many other international students, she was lonely.
She met Ben* through a friend. They swapped numbers and began to text and talk on WeChat. “I wanted someone to talk to,” said Iris. “I felt like I needed someone.”
She had never had a boyfriend before, she would later tell police. But she thought Ben was okay, because he was friends with her friends. Then he started showing up at her house, calling her repeatedly. “Sometimes [he] would call me five times in a row,” Iris said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
One night, Ben called her and said he was outside her house. It was raining. He asked to come in.
They sat on couches opposite one another and he told her to come and sit with him. Then he walked over and forcefully kissed her. She tried to push him away. He slid his hands, unwanted, under her shirt and into her underwear. He tried to make her touch him.
Suddenly, one of her housemates came downstairs; Ben got up and left.
“I didn’t tell anyone what happened,” Iris said. “I didn’t have any friends to talk to and I felt shameful.”
She didn’t see Ben again until a year later, although he kept calling and texting her, asking her if she missed his body. After a chance encounter on campus, he called her yet again and invited himself over to her house.
That night, he assaulted her repeatedly, first locking her in a bathroom, then pulling her into her bedroom. There was physical violence and coercion. Again and again, she told him to stop and leave.
“I was worried what my roommates would think,” Iris said. After he finally left, she told one of them what had happened.
For Iris, there was a lot of stigma around sexual assault, which is often the case for international students from conservative cultural backgrounds. “There’s a culture of victim blaming,” said Belle Lim, the national women’s officer at the Council of International Students Australia. “Often victims deal with misogyny and objectification of women.”
Carrie Wen, an international student and an editor of the University of Sydney newspaper Honi Soit, agreed. She pointed to an extremely popular WeChat group called Australian Rants, a complaints forum for Chinese students in this country.
Overwhelmingly, the posts are about relationship problems or sex. Women asking for advice about abuse or sexual assault regularly receive deeply misogynistic responses – commenters will say it was her fault, or that she was looking for attention.
Lim said rape is a systemic problem faced by all women, “but there are complications for international students”. Communication barriers, cultural differences and isolation all make it harder for international students to report assaults and compound the fear and uncertainty many rape survivors already feel.
Separated from friends and family back home, international students are more susceptible to falling into toxic relationships, said Wen. “They don’t want to find loneliness, so they find a boyfriend or a friend very quickly,” she said. “They rely on their boyfriend or friend. It’s difficult to leave [a bad relationship].”
A few days after the second assault, Iris invited Ben over for lunch. “I felt I had lost the most precious thing. At that time, I felt, like, quite twisted. I wanted to keep the friendship,” she said. “I didn’t want sex, definitely not sex, only lunch. I felt inspired by him, I felt like I needed someone at that time, I wanted someone to encourage me.”
Again, Ben forced himself on to Iris and assaulted her.
That was the last time she saw him. But the trauma stayed with her. She stopped sleeping well. She had flashbacks and felt pain in her genitals.
According to survey results released by the Australian Human Rights Commission, about 5 per cent of all international students were sexually assaulted at Australian universities in 2015-16. This figure is probably a “huge understatement”, said Sharna Bremner, director of End Rape on Campus, because the survey was available only in English. She pointed to research from the United States that showed students in a country where their native language is not widely spoken are about eight times more likely to be sexually assaulted.
Language barriers are part of the problem, with few Australian universities offering sexual assault crisis material in languages other than English. The result is students don’t know how to report an assault, or even that they can report one. “They are unaware of the English terms [sexual assault or rape],” said Carrie Wen. “They never know what the Australian law is or what will happen to them [if they complain]. So they just choose to keep silent.”
This was the case for Iris. “I can feel like [Ben] took sexual advantages of me and I didn’t want that way,” she said. “However, I didn’t know it was sexual assault, which is against the law.”
That changed when a doctor sent Iris to see a psychologist, who explained what she had survived was rape. Iris felt she had to make a report.
“I have self-esteem, and, at that time, I felt like if I didn’t try to find justice, I would lose my self-respect,” she said.
She first made a complaint to the University of Sydney in late 2017. The university’s response was ham-fisted.
In apparent concern for her safety, the university terminated her lease early and she was forced to move into different accommodation. But she said the sudden relocation caused her considerable stress.
Worse than that, though, was Ben’s continued presence on campus. Even after Iris reported him, it took the university three weeks to stand him down from his tutoring job.
Sharna Bremner said universities often mishandle complaints against their staff. The result is that international students suffer disproportionately, and are preyed upon by repeat offenders. “[They] are a particular target of those staff members, because they are a group that’s less likely to report to anyone,” said Bremner.
A University of Sydney spokesperson said there have been recent improvements in the complaints process, with the introduction of an online reporting portal. Some staff have received specialist training, including university housing staff. All new students must complete an online “Consent Matters” module, though it is offered only in English.
There are now also special international student liaison officers, and workshops on students’ rights several times a year. The spokesperson was unable to comment on the specifics of Iris’s case.
After making her complaint to the university, Iris went to the police on the advice of a nurse she saw for a sexual health check. Ben was soon charged with multiple counts of sexual assault and indecent assault. He pleaded not guilty and was granted bail.
After graduating, Iris returned to China but had to fly back to Australia three times for the case – there was some financial help from the government, but she was left $3000 out of pocket by pursuing the case.
Finally, earlier this year, the matter came before a jury at the District Court. The judge was Robyn Tupman, who oversaw the 2017 retrial of Sydney nightclub scion Luke Lazarus over rape charges. Appearing via videolink from outside the courtroom, Iris gave evidence through an interpreter.
Crucially, she felt unable to testify without relying on her original police statement. “I was too nervous to recall what happened a year-and-a-half ago without reading the statement carefully,” she says.
According to Iris, she was warned by the judge not to keep referring to her notes. The prosecutors took her aside. They told her she would be cross-examined on why she was relying on her statement. The chance of a win was low. They asked whether she wanted to continue and she said no. The case against Ben was dropped.
Iris said she didn’t feel pressured to drop the case. “I felt shameful because the [Director of Public Prosecutions] and the police had done loads of work.”
Iris’s story is remarkable. Most of those interviewed for this article said they had never heard of another international student who had taken their assault allegation all the way to trial.
Iris said universities needed to change – she thought allowing sexual interactions between staff and students needed to be reconsidered. And for international students who’ve been assaulted there needed to be more support in their native tongue.
The police and the DPP could do more to support survivors, too, regularly offering interpreters and better explaining what happens during a trial.
Sharna Bremner agrees the problems are systemic. “The legal system isn’t set up in a way that makes reporting feasible under the best of circumstances,” she said. “Let alone when you’ve got those additional barriers.”
After the trial, Iris flew home to China one last time. The DPP told her it will not try to prosecute Ben again. She has tried to move forward, and found a job as a teacher. Ben is still working as a tutor, at another university.
* Names have been changed.
National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732 and ask for the translating and interpreter service.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Minority reports". Subscribe here.