“From the first time I stepped into her class, I knew I wanted to fuck her.”
Alice* is 21, an Arts student at USyd, and one of my closest friends. She has good grades, enjoys running, has a steady part-time office job, and last semester she “fucked” one of her tutors.
“There was a pretty mutual and obvious attraction from the beginning,” she tells me coyly over a jug of cider at Courtyard. “We flirted from almost the very first class of the semester.”
Everything kicked off in earnest when Alice’s tutor emailed her about an assessment.
“I was late in submitting my first assignment, and she emailed to check up on me. She tried to casually weave in something about her personal life—referenced how her PhD was going, got the conversation started. I replied with a little bit of information about myself. Things kind of just…developed from there.”
After emailing daily for a few weeks—as well as seeing each other in class—Alice and her tutor met up for a drink off campus. They fell into a sexual relationship after that night.
“I really liked her and there was this definite, acute thrill about the whole thing,” Alice says, smiling. “I was like ‘wow this is what university should be like!’ She was 10 years older than me, super intelligent, we had great sex, and then I had the rush of pretending like it wasn’t happening every week in class.”
She laughs, and adds, blushing slightly: “I guess I felt really…cool.”
But, after a few months of this secret sex—and just after the semester ended—Alice broke it off with her tutor. Her feelings had changed.
“I definitely became less attracted to her once she wasn’t my tutor anymore. Plus I started developing feelings for someone else, so there wasn’t anything left to tie me to her.”
I ask about repercussions. Hadn’t she been scared that something would happen to her grades, that the affair might have adversely affected her future in the university? She nods.
“Yeah I mean I was really lucky in that sense. She was hurt and upset but she’s honestly a really kind human, and although she could have presumably fucked me over in some academic sense, she didn’t.”
She pauses. “Fuck, though, if something bad had happened, I wouldn’t have known what to do or who to report her to. Is something like this even reportable to the University?”
I pour another glass of cider in silence, realising I don’t really know the answer to this question either.
Originally, I had planned to write this feature about students just like Alice—students who had fun, sexy stories to tell about their adventures in Introduction to Tutor Sex 1001. I idealised it as juicy but light-hearted, revealing but never too serious. Part of me felt like maybe sex between staff and students was an inevitable and normal part of a university experience. After all, students are often close to their tutors in age, they often share similar interests, are encouraged to engage in genuine and collegial relationships. Maybe, I thought, it was hardly surprising that this sometimes crosses the line of flirtatious and continues merrily along into the sexual. Of course, there are power dynamics at play, but they are not so different from those within many kinds of relationships we deem to be ‘normal’. Any workplace relationship, for example, probably involves a hierarchy of some kind. Discrepancies in wealth may also put one partner at the mercy of the other. Attractiveness, age, background—so many factors that make up the pretty mess that is many relationships could be seen to be about power, and about power imbalances. In my optimism, I reasoned that the tutor-student version was not so different—flawed, but formed between two consenting adults, capable of intelligently assessing their own emotions and desires.
I know now that that was naïve of me; sex is rarely ever so simple.
By the time I had completed the research for this story, I had come to realise how incredibly lucky Alice was. It’s now sadly and awfully clear to me that at the University of Sydney, sex between staff and students can go horrifically wrong, and that, too often, sexual harassers and abusers are protected by a combination of bureaucratic incompetence, toothless policies, and an administration intent on wilfully ignoring a broken, misogynistic and violent university culture.
* * *
Anna* had a crush on her tutor for the entire semester he was teaching her. She’d joke with her friends—“Oh my god, imagine if we dated”—and says she flirted with him, on and off. By the end of the semester, she was ready to make a move.
“I added him on Facebook, almost just to see what would happen,” she tells me. We’re talking via Skype; Anna’s no longer at the University. She says she’s “absolutely done with Sydney”.
“He messaged me, asked to meet up with me at night. I was in my first year, first semester of uni and here I was, being asked on a date by my really hot tutor. Of course I went.”
Anna and her tutor spent the night together drinking and partying in the city. In the early hours of the morning, they ended up on a beach in the eastern suburbs. The tutor made his move.
“We were making out and then he just started rubbing his erection all over me, tried to take my clothes off, tried to shove his hands inside me. I told him I actually really didn’t want to have sex; he told me he ‘actually really did’ and covered my mouth to try keep me quiet.”
Anna fought him off and ran to the main road. He called after her: “You’re a really cool chick! Can we do this again sometime?” She hailed a cab and took it home, shaking.
Soon after, he started messaging Anna daily.
“We’re talking pages and pages of stuff. Every day. He told me he loved me, he needed me, he wanted me, he couldn’t live without me. He’d tell me when he saw something that reminded me of him.” She lets out a hollow laugh. “That was surprisingly frequently.”
The messages continued for three years.
“The worst ones were when he sent me something insinuating that he knew where I lived. He followed me a couple of places and messaged me details of that. They just kept coming.”
I ask Anna if she ever thought about reporting him. Surely she wanted it to stop?
“I think the saddest bit is that I didn’t want to take it seriously after two or three years,” she says slowly. “You want sex with your tutor to be this cool university experience, you don’t want it to be traumatic. I played it off to people as like a ‘lol look at this creepy tutor texting me again’ type of thing. As though I loved the attention.”
Anna doesn’t know where her tutor is now, or if he is still employed by the University, or if he’s still studying there—he was completing his second degree at the time she knew him. She’s worried.
“I don’t think I was the first student this happened to, and so I don’t think I was the last. He would always allude to others.”
The messages have now stopped.
* * *
Had Anna wanted to report her tutor to the University, it’s likely that he would have been found to have been in breach of the institution’s Harassment and Discrimination Policy, which proclaims that “[a]ll staff, students and affiliates at the University have a right to work or study in an environment that is free from unlawful harassment and discrimination”.
Dr Belinda Smith, Associate Professor at the USyd Law School, is an expert in organisational sexual harassment and gender equity legislation. She tells me that, under federal anti-discrimination and harassment laws, the University has an obligation to protect both its staff and its students from sexual harassment, and to have a policy just like this one.
“Any educational organisation is liable for a staff member sexually harassing a student, unless they can prove that they have severed their vicarious liability by taking all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring,” she says.
“If they want to protect themselves from legal risk, organisations have to have procedures in place.”
Dr Smith tells me that these procedures may include internal guidelines and codes of conduct, grievance processes, conciliation sessions and ultimately, in many cases, reserving the right to fire or expel perpetrators.
I find USyd’s harassment complaints resolution procedure. It’s six very short steps long. A body called the Staff and Student Equal Opportunity Unit is responsible for overseeing the process, which is nebulously described using phrases such as “obtain all relevant information” and “appropriate avenues of support and advice”. I can’t contain a wry chuckle when I read Step Six, simply: “monitor developments and resolution outcomes”.
When I tell Dr Smith how vague the University’s procedures are, she seems shocked.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more toothy outcomes. I wonder whether all they’ve got is this vague conciliation process and they’re lacking concrete expulsion or firing mechanisms?”
Samantha’s* experience suggests that that might be the case. Last year, she was the student at the centre of the now-infamous Alexander Wright scandal. After finding out that Wright, who was a USyd student employed by the university as a residential assistant, had taken sexually explicit photos without her consent and shared them amongst his friends, she reported him to Student Services. She says she realised the University administration didn’t care for her welfare from the very beginning of what became an incredibly protracted and convoluted process.
“I had a meeting with Idina Rex [Head of Student Affairs] and Jordi Austin [Director of Student Support Services]. When I asked them if Alex would be expelled, they said no straight away. They said it wasn’t the University’s responsibility. They were like: ‘If you get hurt in a public place, you don’t go contacting the Council.’”
After Samantha’s requests for mediation, counselling and other support services were consistently denied or mishandled, she decided to go to the media. The resulting furore completely and radically altered the way the case was handled. Wright was fired from his position at the University, and suddenly the administration took Samantha seriously.
“I even got a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor,” she says. “He was totally shocked about what had happened, and he promised me so much—notes on my academic transcript explaining why I had failed so many classes, an in-depth review into sexual harassment at the University, a special adviser to help me transition back to uni.”
More than six months on, Samantha still hasn’t seen any of those promises come to fruition. I’m outraged and I tell her so. I can’t believe this has still all materially resulted in very little. She agrees with me, but she softly adds that the worst part is that, because the University refused to expel Wright, she still sees him on campus.
“It’s so scary because he is around and I know he is there. It’s the paranoia of not…of not feeling safe. I have no way of making sure I feel safe on campus. They didn’t even offer mediation, let alone take steps to expel him. They’ve essentially said that they tolerate this type of behaviour.”
Of course, sadly, Samantha isn’t the only victim of the flawed harassment policy. I also speak with Rachel*, who was harassed and assaulted by a member of staff within a USyd student organisation, while he was also concurrently a student.
“At first, I thought the whole thing was my fault, like it was a misunderstanding I had made. But once I realised what had happened, I had to report it,” she says.
Rachel reported the incidents to the student organisation. After a long and murky process that was “mostly driven by his colleagues, not the administration”, he was removed from his position. Rachel says she was told by the student organisation that if she wanted to take it any further, she would have to make a formal report to the police.
“I’d gone to the RPA and I’d had a check-up after it all happened. And they told me that there was no physical evidence left; that proving anything in a police report would have been very difficult.”
I email Jordi Austin, the Director of Student Support Services, and ask her what her department is doing in order to cope with the onslaught of student/staff sexual harassment cases. She’s slow in replying, and CCs the University’s Head of Public Relations, Kirsten Andrews, into our emails.
“Other institutions in Australia and overseas have also explored this issue in some detail, and we are hoping to leverage off best practice in developing campus programs that allow students to feel safer on campus, to understand appropriate and ethical sexual behaviours and consent, and to ensure that we are responsive to requests for assistance that fall into our jurisdiction,” she writes.
“As a component of this we will be conducting a climate survey in semester 2, timed around the USU Radical Sex and Consent week, which will help the institution develop priorities for action.”
According to the President of the Students’ Representative Council, Kyol Blakeney, although the University—including Austin’s department—has been taking steps to prioritise action on the broader issue of sexual harassment on campus, they’re not doing enough.
“There have been positive changes to security protocols at night, to lighting on campus. But the University should be taking hardline, concrete steps to completely remove students and staff who are perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.
“There are so many cases that have been consistently bungled and it’s shocking that the University hasn’t done more to help its students. It absolutely needs to change.”
But I find myself worrying that the system that Austin, Blakeney, and other undoubtedly well-meaning activists are trying to reform a system that is ultimately, irredeemably broken.
This worry rears its head most acutely after I speak to one student who was recently severely sexually harassed and assaulted by a member of the Senate, the University’s ultimate governing body. She tells me how she knew he could “make her life hell” if she reported him. She recalls how afraid she was because she felt like any complaint she made wouldn’t have been taken seriously, or would have been tied up in more bureaucracy to save face for the University. She’s adamant that I anonymise her as much as possible, because she is still terrified of his reach, and of his power.
More than anything, though, she is angry that the University didn’t protect her better, that there wasn’t an external, independent body that she could have turned to in order to get help.
“The university is so fucking serious about plagiarism, about people stealing other people’s words. They’ll kick you out, they’ll expel you, they’ll make a permanent mark on your record.
“Why aren’t they as serious about stealing someone’s confidence, about—in some cases—stealing someone’s willingness to live?”
My friend Alice was lucky. She was lucky because she had a caring, consensual relationship with another adult who also happened to be in a position of responsibility at the University she attended. She was lucky because there was no assault or harassment involved, and the power imbalance inherent in her sexual relationship with her tutor was never turned against her. She was lucky because she never had to turn to a crippled and hamstrung system for help, only to get swallowed up by it.
But the vast majority of the women I spoke to—the unlucky ones—had relationships with staff that went wrong, and worse, they went wrong in a regulatory twilight; where rules reached awkwardly and codes of conduct applied haphazardly. This university needs to draw concrete, bold lines between what is wrong and what is not, and consequences need to be clear-cut and serious. Grey areas aren’t acceptable when it comes to sexual harassment and assault.
I call Alice after I finish my research for this feature, and I tell her how lucky she was, tell her what happened to all those other women whose stories began not dissimilarly to hers.
“No-one should have to rely on luck,” she says, sadly. Of course, she’s right: in an ideal world, all sex should be safe.
“But if it comes down to it, if you are ‘unlucky’, you’d like to think that you could rely on the University of Sydney.
“Obviously, you can’t.”