Sexual Assault On University Campuses: We need to do more than ‘Talk About It’

30 / 03 / 2016

Heidi La Paglia is a student at the University of Tasmania and has a strong interest in tackling gender equality, check and in improving the experiences of women at university. She has been the women’s officer at the Tasmania University Union and is now the National Women’s Officer at the National Union of Students. She is also a member of a number women’s boards and advisory groups including the Tasmanian Women’s Council (TWC) and the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA).

In 2015, recipe the National Union of Students (NUS) ran a national student survey, order which revealed a number of alarming statistics about women’s experiences at university.

The survey included 54 questions, which covered a number of areas including: accommodation, work, transport, representation and campus life, and student services; but also asked a number of personal questions about women students economic situation, health, and experiences of sexual harassment, assault and violence.

In the results of the survey, a disproportionate number of respondents saying that they regularly experienced economic difficulties (59.6%), health issues and / or family responsibilities which regularly impacted on their study; and many said that they had experience blatant harassment or violence which, combined, made their university experience almost unsustainable.

One student from the University of New South Wales said that they found the experience of accessing financial help from “centrelink in the context of domestic violence / mental health / financial crisis extremely difficult and often punitive

While many of these findings are not surprising to those who are aware of the similar disadvantages that women face in other areas of life, they do reflect a need for increased support for women students at university; which was a theme throughout the report that was developed from the survey.

In the section on student safety, 72% of women said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment while they were at university, and nearly a third (27%) said that they had experienced sexual assault. While these figures themselves are concerning, what is perhaps even more alarming is that nearly all of these individuals claimed to have received little, or no support from their university.

In the majority of cases (94%), the students did not report the incident to their university. This was most often because they didn’t know how (23%), because they didn’t think the incident warranted reporting (37%), or because they were frightened of the consequences if they did (22%).

“Last year I experienced continual unwanted sexual advances by an academic staff member who was my supervisor at the time. Even though I knew it wasn’t my fault and I knew that I was within my rights to report I didn’t think I could because I was in a subordinate position to the offender. I was so concerned about the consequences for me (academically, like not having a supervisor, having a sexual harassment claim against my name), that I did not report it. This was an awful  experience and should not be happening in any institution let alone in an academic setting

The experiences of those students who did report the incident also showed that these fears were not unfounded. While there were a few survey respondents that felt supported by staff at their university, an overwhelming majority were unsatisfied with the outcome. Some of the most common reasons given for the dissatisfaction included that there were no repercussions for the perpetrator, or that the university blamed the survivor for ‘putting themselves’ in the situation.

“I was ignored, told I was simply drunk, and it wasn’t worth investigating” (University of NSW, 20 year old).

From these results, the NUS women’s office is demanding that universities implement a number of recommendations aimed at improving support for students safety on campus. These include: the implementation of accessible reporting processes, with clear repercussions for perpetrators, counsellors on every campus who are trained to support victims of sexual assault and violence, and mandatory consent training for all staff and students.

In order to see these recommendations implemented, the NUS is taking part in a number of initiatives including ‘The Hunting Ground’ which is a project involving three stages. The first is screening  ‘ The Hunting Ground’ which a US documentary about sexual assault to raise awareness about the issue in Australia, The second, is, rolling out a survey which is being run by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to gain insight from students into how they think support services should be improved; and the third involves gaining commitment from all Australian universities to follow through with the changes.

While Universities Australia, and Vice-Chancellors have so far given in-principal support of the campaign to address sexual assault against women on campuses; promises have been made in the past without meaningful follow up. In 2011 for example, when the NUS released its report from the previous ‘Talk About It’ survey, UA, along with White Ribbon Australia, and the Equality Rights Alliance pledged to agree to a number of our recommendations to improve the safety of women students. It is now 2016, and many of the statistics, as well as the recommendations, are identical.

This year, there is more action coming from UA, with the launch of their Respect, Now, Always campaign, and their public statements about the importance of improving student safety on campus. In order to address what has become an epidemic of sexual assault on campus however, students need more concrete and meaningful changes than those that are currently being put forward. Talking the talk isn’t enough, we need to walk the walk.

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