Art by Katie Thorburn
This has been a landmark year for sexual assault on campus at Sydney University. Watching from the outside, the public have seen Wesley College’s ‘Rackweb’ brought to light by student journalists, stories of rape and harassment hit the mainstream media, and a number of student-led protests, accompanied by their share of bitter anti-feminist backlash. Behind the scenes – in the offices of university management – the cogs have started turning and changes are coming, albeit slowly. This is the inside story of the work done by student activists that resulted in this change.
Early in the year it became clear that tackling rape on campus would dominate the work of student representatives and activists from the Wom*n’s Collective. Initially invited to work with the University through the Safer Communities Working Group, we hoped that it would be a productive platform for us to voice our concerns and have them heard by management. Perhaps naïvely, I thought making change would just be a matter of bringing students’ concerns to these meetings, that the University would listen and then promptly incorporate them into their initiatives.
But we soon began to notice a worrying trend. The more student representatives spoke out about sexual assault or even just conveyed information from meetings to the media (be it student media, or mainstream), the more infrequent our meetings became. When we raised this issue in May, noting that we hadn’t received replies to a number of our emails the previous month, we were told by senior members of university management that they had been “working on the smell of an oily rag”, and that this “isn’t their day job”. Management speak for “stop bothering us, we have more important things to worry about”.
Perhaps the irony of saying this to a group of largely unpaid, or otherwise dismally paid student activists was lost on them. We were trying to coordinate this campaign on top of balancing study and waged work. It was a slap in the face.
As SRC Sexual Harassment Officer Olivia Borgese reflected, “We were pouring our hearts, tears, sweat and blood into driving change … to imply that improving the reporting system for sexual harassment and assault was a gratuitous courtesy on behalf of the University was very disappointing.”
It made us realise that, so long as management staff were unwilling to make this issue a priority, the Working Group would only get us so far. While money and energy was being poured into the issue of academic integrity through the Honour Code Project, sexual assault was falling by the wayside. Something had to be done. Just as mainstream media coverage on widespread academic dishonesty was what it took for a rehaul of that system, we knew that public embarrassment was required before the University would act.
In May, after national reports on the “Rackweb” published in the Wesley College Journal, we staged a protest outside the college. Calling on allies of all genders, we taped our mouths shut with duct tape and marched to Wesley, pushing past police to sit with candles and placards on the steps of the college.
teps of the college. However, when this protest was picked up by various mainstream outlets and wrung through the media cycle, we realised that the colleges were too easy a scapegoat for the issue of sexual assault. The university was quick to distance itself from the “independent” institutions of the colleges. They promptly set up a “taskforce” and to this day, five months later, we’ve heard nothing concrete come out of it. In fact, we don’t even know which colleges have officially signed on.
After Wesley, it became clear we needed to broaden our focus. Rape happens everywhere – not only at college parties or in dorm rooms, but also at university-endorsed events, in classes and off-campus, to students at parties in share-houses.
In response to every story that emerged in the media, the University would make the same statement, stressing that they “take issues of sexual assault very seriously”. And yet, we still hadn’t seen the recommendations of the “Safer Community” report implemented, vague and noncommittal as they were. With little to no genuine consultation with students occurring, and the same glib comments repeated in the press, we were fed up.
On the Open Day for prospective students in August, we were ready to make a very public statement about the University’s approach to sexual assault. Armed with ten mattresses, we stormed the parents’ information session. While survivors spoke on microphones about their experiences of rape and institutional failure, management attempted to turn off the lights and usher the audience out. The symbolism was almost too obvious – survivors literally being plunged into darkness by a university determined to silence their voices.
It was only at this point, after coverage of our protests and an open letter signed by the past decade of Women’s Officers, that things finally started to change. All of a sudden, the University agreed to a complete overhaul of the reporting system and the staff handling reports received professional training as first responders. Creating an educational module about consent was back on the table. Our working group was formalised as a sub-committee of the Students Consultative Committee, guaranteeing us regular meetings and ongoing consultation on policy and procedures around sexual assault.
Of all the tactics utilised in the campaign, direct action was the key to creating the critical pressure that forced the University’s hand. Trying to cooperate with the University early in the year achieved very little. It was only after we brought sustained public attention to the issue, through protests and media attention, that the changes we had been demanding all year actually started to be implemented. Between bureaucracy and public relations, “change from within” has changed nothing – only creative direct action has forced the University to take sexual assault seriously.