News //

Uni fails sexual harassment victim

The University has failed to protect a student who had their naked photo shared without their consent, reports Christina White.

UPDATE: Alexander Wright’s name and photo have been restored to this article following legal advice. They were initially removed following concerns of the University of Sydney and other parties. No challenge was made to the factual accuracy of the original article. The reasons given for the original removal concerned protecting the perpetrator’s “welfare”. The editorial team disagreed with that instruction, and we wrote an editorial on the matter.

In May 2013, Alexander Wright took a naked photo of a woman he was with, on his mobile phone. “I took a photo of us in a state of undress without your knowledge or consent,” Wright stated in a letter to the woman. “After I found the photograph, I showed it to other students that we both know.” Wright shared the image at parties, showed it to mutual friends and other USyd students, the victim told Honi. The photo was taken during intercourse and her eyes were shut, she said.

Wright’s actions may constitute a crime under NSW law. Taking a photo of someone in a “state of undress” without their consent can result in a jail sentence of up to two years. Police did not press charges due to a six-month time limit on commencing proceedings from the date of the offence (in the absence of aggravating factors) and the victim did not find out about the photo’s existence until eight months after it had occurred.

The University was made aware of the incident in January this year, but appears to have taken little action and dragged their feet at every step. Wright still studies, lives, and works on campus. USyd’s failure to punish him speaks to a broader resitance to take sexual harassment seriously.

“I had to fight to get Student Affairs to consider it a breach of misconduct and investigate my claim. It took months to process it (from January to August),” the woman said.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the University facilitated a meeting between the students in May. However, the woman has told Honi the University was reluctant to proceed with any such meeting, offered little to no assistance, and that she had to push them to organize a meeting.

“I had to fight for it,” she said. “I was told to run the meeting and was given no help or direction from the Head of Student Affairs.”

Allegations of student misconduct are investigated under the auspices of the Office of General Council, at the request of the Registrar. They appear to be shrouded in bureaucracy and secrecy.

“I was not kept up to date with the investigation and would often not hear from Student Affairs for weeks. Towards the end of the investigation Student Affairs would not return my calls or emails. I had to push them to find out if the case had been closed or not.”

At the May meeting, Wright agreed to make a public apology at a later date, she said. Honi understands that no public apology has been made to date. Student Affairs told the woman they would not facilitate a second meeting, and it was her responsibility to do so. The woman explained how the burden was insurmountable: “It is not possible for me to organise all the parties (his friends especially) to attend an apology meeting.”

Further, the woman says she has not been informed of any punishment taken against Wright. He sent an apology letter to her, but it seems that the University has not forced him to do anything. He is still a student on campus, and retains his position as a Resident Liason at campus accommodation owned and operated by USyd. In this role, he is in a position of authority over younger students in their place of residence.

The Head of Student Affairs, Idena Rex could not comment on the matter specifically, but told Honi the “penalty of expulsion is applied for [only] very serious incidents of misconduct.”

Rex added, “In my experience of working in universities and talking to colleagues within the sector, the penalties that are applied here at Sydney are commensurate with those applied for similar breaches in other universities.”

The Vice-Chancellor’s office refused to comment.

In contrast, last week the Vice-Chancellor of Otago University Professor Harlene Hayne publically condemned similar actions of students posting explicit photos of their girlfriends on Facebook. “We will take action to set an example to the university and wider community that this sort of behavior is totally unacceptable on every front,” said Hayne.

The woman continues to be harassed by other students. “Since semester one this year I have experienced intimidation, been groped at social functions, excluded from social settings, insulted and oversexualised by a group of his friends on and off campus,” she said. “Students make comments about my body. This has happened on most of the days I attend university: it has happened in the library, walking around campus or at campus events.”

The Student Affairs department at USyd has offered her no practical support regarding long-term harassment. They initially advised her to take out individual misconduct claims against each person harassing her, but there were too many instances to deal with separately. Student Affairs then withdrew this offer and suggested she call security.

SRC Sexual Harassment Officer Georgia Carr believes the University could be doing much more to support to those in need. “Stories like this one, as well as the reports and anecdotes of sexual harassment and assault that come out of residential colleges during O-Week and throughout the year, are indicative of a lack of initiative,” said Carr.

The way USyd deals with sexual harassment is insufficient. Carr outlined what better services could be introduced. “Services like a hotline for anonymous reporting of sexual harassment on campus should be readily available, as well as an immediate point of contact for harassment that occurs in residential colleges or at university-run events such as faculty balls and dinners which occur at this time of year.”

This woman was brave, but she is by no means the only victim of USyd’s inertia. “I feel abandoned by the University,” she said. “I spoke out hoping to make a change, to fight for my rights and those of my fellow students.”

Incidents of sexual harassment are a window into sexism and misogyny that run throughout society; USyd is by no means exempt from these harmful cultures. Indeed, through its inaction it becomes complicit in a culture of silencing victims.

“By concealing what they have done the University is condoning his behaviour,” said the woman. “They appear to be more concerned about dampening this down, keeping the status quo and protecting themselves. This makes me concerned for other students’ experience on the campus.”

Alexander Wright was contacted but declined to comment.