Drastic levels of underreporting
One of the most significant findings of the AHRC report was the extent to which sexual harassment and assault were underreported to universities.
According to the report, the levels of underreporting suggest that “universities may not have a clear pathways and policies for reporting … and do not foster an environment where reporting of these behaviours encouraged.”
In addition to underreporting, students were also found to have underutilised university support
The primary reasons for not seeking support from the university for both sexual harassment and assault were “I did not think it was serious enough” and “I did not think I needed help”.
Unclear mechanisms at uni
One student told the commission that: “I had no clue that I could let institutions know that I was sexually assaulted without having to go to court.”
Another said: “I didn’t really know where to go on campus to complain. [They] don’t advertise those kinds of private services or complaint handling departments, so I didn’t know where to turn to when my assault occurred.”
Students largely didn’t report sexual harassment or assault out of fear, emotional distress, or feeling that their experience was not serious enough. Many students were afraid that their complaint wouldn’t be taken seriously due to a lack of evidence.
“It would have been impossible to prove that I didn’t consent. I just wanted to forget about it,” one student submitted to the report.
Other students were scared reporting the matter would have consequences for their studies or career. For one student, the fact that “the lecturer had a big name in the industry I was trying to break into” prevented them from taking action.
Though other students didn’t report their experience because they didn’t know whether their experience constituted sexual harassment or assault. “Too many people associated sexual assault with violent attacks by strangers, making it harder to identify and report sexual assault which is perpetrated by someone known to the victim,” one submission read.
The bureaucratic hoops students were required to jump through when making a complaint were enough to deter many students. As one student wrote, “the complaints procedure seemed much more arduous and emotionally laborious for me as a complainant. It is a process that would affect me much more than it would affect him.”
Many students noted inadequate support services, with one student saying, “reporting my rape to the university was worse than being raped”.
According to the report, “a large number of submissions received by the commission described negative experiences of reporting or support seeking at university, or negative impacts following an experience with the university.”
“A negative response to someone reporting sexual assault or sexual harassment, or seeking support after an event can reinforce an individual’s feelings of self-blame or uncertainty… and can deter a person from taking any further action.”
The report’s critics have stated that its findings are merely emblematic of a problem that exists everywhere, and that you are in no more danger at university than anywhere else. While this may be true, it is simultaneously true that universities do bear responsibility for ensuring student safety and providing services in their environment. The report shows that universities are not providing adequate and accessible support services and methods of recourse for people affected by sexual harassment or assault, and indicate a failing they must address.
The deal with the colleges
“Stella lived in a residential college. Within a few weeks of living at the college, a postgraduate student who was also a resident of the college began to harass and stalk Stella. He would follow her around campus, grab her and hold her against her will and would tell her how much he wanted to be with her, despite Stella telling him that she wasn’t interested in him… One night, Stella woke up to the resident raping and physically assaulting her. The resident told her that if she told anyone else what had happened, he would kill her”.
Stella’s story is just one submission revealing sexual assault and harassment at residential colleges received by the Australian Human Rights Commission, and published in the Change the Course report.
It is no surprise that the report found students who lived in university owned or affiliated residential accommodation were more likely to have been sexually assaulted or harassed. Of those who were sexually assaulted in a university setting, 34 per cent were living in university accommodation at the time of the most recent incident. College women were also three times more likely than their male counterparts to have been sexually assaulted.
The underlying attitudes that acclimatise and normalise sexual assault and harassment appear to be concentrated in residential colleges. The report notes that attitudes towards gender roles, relationships, and negative perceptions of women contribute to the perpetuation of sexual discrimination and assault at universities, broadly.
We have all heard stories of college initiation rituals and ‘hazing’ practices in the media – former St Paul’s students have reported being beaten as freshers during O-Week; St Andrew’s students are auctioned off based on popularity, blindfolded, dumped in the middle of nowhere by older students and forced to hitch-hike their way home; several students were expelled from St John’s when a girl almost died after being forced to drink a cocktail of shampoo, sour milk, dog food, and alcohol.
Many initiation rituals are not only highly sexualised, but condone sexually derogatory behaviours, students told the AHRC via anonymous submission. At one college, fresher women were reportedly required to drink from wine sacks male residents had hanging out of their fly. Freshers at other colleges were made to sing songs describing sexual assault. Several statements described college parties where women were force-fed alcohol or told to remove clothing.
Students are socially ostracised for not participating; those who play along are rewarded with friendship. Sexual encounters between students are treated as public knowledge: they are talked about at the dinner table, broadcast over PA systems, or announced at student meetings; they represent “conquests” for men, and opportunities to be slut-shamed for women.
“In colleges especially, there’s a real pack mentality and a bubble is created in which it feels like the rules of regular society don’t apply. So people often believe that they can get away with things in this bubble that they couldn’t normally get away with…” one student submitted to the report.
“The problem arises when this culture of objectification is allowed to manifest itself on college campuses. When first year boys see/take part in this behaviour in O-Week, they are taught that objectifying women in this manner is acceptable from the outset of their university careers,” another student wrote.
What is clear in the report is not only the way students are groomed to normalise sexually discriminatory behaviours, but their unique living environments give them the ability to take sexual advantage of fellow residents more easily. Many submissions from women living in university residences describing sexual assault say the assault took place in private bedrooms within their college. Women reported being filmed in unisex showers or bathrooms within their college.
“It seems normalised within the college system for the girls to get ‘preyed’ on… It was colloquial to talk about the ‘predators’ in college, and the older men to prey on the younger ‘freshers’. In hindsight it is creepy and gross, but when entirely engrossed in the system, it is much more normalised.”
The AHRC’s recommendations were:
- “Vice-Chancellors should take direct responsibility for the implementation of these recommendations” with the help of an advisory body.
- “Universities [should] develop a plan for addressing the drivers of sexual assault and sexual harassment” by educating students and staff about sexual assault and harassment, consent, and bystander intervention.
- “Universities should … widely disseminate information about university reporting avenues” on the university’s website and at orientations.
- “[W]ithin a year of the release of this report universities should commission an independent, expert-led review of existing university policies and response pathways”.
- Universities should provide training to staff and students who are most likely to receive disclosures of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
- Universities should take detailed reports of disclosures, including feedback on the process from complainants, and store this confidentially.
- “[A]s soon as possible, universities should conduct an audit of university counselling services” about wait times and counsellors’ training on working with survivors.
- The survey should be repeated every three years to track national progress.
- Residential colleges should commission an independent review (sound familiar?) to look at factors which contribute to sexual assault and harassment at colleges.
Given decades of institutional incompetence and foot-dragging by successive university administrations, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC’s) recommendations appear ambitious. If universities continue to fail their students in the future, they do so knowing that their failure will attract heightened attention from the Commission and national media. At best, the recommendations provide a clear blueprint for institutions that can no longer afford to wish the problem away.
However, the broadness of many of the recommendations could allow USyd to return to its comfort-zone of opaque bureaucracy and illusory, self-congratulatory buzzwords. In light of the University’s track record when dealing with sexual assault and harassment on campus, it is possible that ‘education programs’, for example, might look more like a couple of insipid, sorry-looking posters than the targeted dismantling of toxic power structures within the colleges.
Some of the AHRC’s other recommendations have already been introduced by USyd after years of campaigning by wom*n’s officers, like the review of complaints handling mechanisms and the independent review of the colleges.
At times, it appears that the report sets a very low bar for universities. Providing detailed and accessible information about reporting options is the bare minimum that should be expected of any institution. In contrast to the recommendations, women’s collectives nationally are rallying for a federal complaints mechanism and sexual ethics and managing vicarious trauma training for all university and college staff and students — while the recommendations suggest training only for those staff likely to receive disclosures — among other demands more closely met by the recommendations.
Yet the Commission’s more demanding recommendations could well be stifled by the same forces that constantly conspire to kill off any attempt at positive cultural change. After spending years doing everything in their power to deny the existence of a problem, how likely is it that those who sit on the boards of our University’s most esteemed residential colleges will agree to another external audit of their hallowed, inscrutable traditions? Only time will tell.
The report’s methodology was not unusual for surveys of this type. It was distributed to a stratified selection of 319,252 students or roughly 25 per cent of students across all 39 Australian university campuses. The survey being ‘stratified’ means that a representative number of students were specifically selected to be sent the survey based upon known characteristics such as gender, year of study, and level of study.
For example, given that there are roughly 30,000 undergraduate and 20,000 postgraduate students at USyd, the survey would have been sent to three undergraduates for every two postgraduates. This method of sampling usually reduces error compared to simply randomly selecting students.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has been criticised for only sending its questionnaire to a sample of students, inevitably barring many from contributing their experiences. Given that the AHRC provided no particular reason for this, the likely explanation is that this smaller sample reduced costs and time while still providing results with approximately a 95 per cent confidence level.
The AHRC received 30,930 responses which was slightly fewer (9.7 per cent of contacted students) than expected (10-15 per cent). Nonetheless, the number of respondents was nearly twice the size of the comparable 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey.
The AHRC survey saw moderately lower rates of sexual assault and harassment than in similar surveys such as that of the ABS, however the AHRC survey only asked respondents to include experiences from the past two years while most surveys refer to the last five years or any experiences since the age of 15.
One concern was that the results could have been influenced by the voluntary nature of the survey’s questionnaires. That is, response rates could have been different between people who had experienced or witnessed sexual assault and harassment and those who had not, thereby skewing the results.
To test for this, the AHRC looked at the correlation between response rates and reported rates of sexual assault and harassment at different universities. If there was a response bias, universities with higher response rates would also see higher proportions of sexual assault and harassment. The AHRC determined that there was a response bias resulting in a possible overestimation of rates of sexual assault and violence experienced by male students. However, there was no such response bias for female students, allowing the results to be more accurately projected to the entire female student population.
Why were international student rates so low?
- Harassed at university:
- 27% English-speaking v 22% CALD
- 27% Domestic v 22% International
- Assaulted at university:
- 7.4% Domestic v 5.1% International
While the report confirmed a lot of things that students, advocates, and survivors had known for years; namely that sexual assault and harassment is a widespread issue within our universities, one groups’ statistics went against past anecdotal experience.
According to the nation wide report, international students and students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds were less likely to be sexually harassed than domestic students and those who primarily spoke English at home.
Similarly, international students were less likely to be sexually assaulted than domestic students, while there was no discernible difference in sexual assault rates between CALD and English-speaking students. The USyd specific data did not make specific reference to international or domestic incident rates.
University of Sydney Student Representative Council Wom*n’s Officer, Imogen Grant, cites the fact that the survey was only available in English as one cause of the lower international and CALD statistics.
“It is likely to have led to underreporting of sexual assault and harassment among international students,” she said. “So the statistics in the report are unlikely to be an accurate representation.”
The language barrier extends to reporting mechanisms at university, with many students unable to access support systems, following an incident, in their first language. This is reflected in the report, which found that international students were less aware than domestic students of the “procedures that exist for formally reporting sexual assault or sexual harassment at their university.”
According to Grant, despite calls for change, there is currently no translation service available for students looking to report harassment or assault in a language other than English.
“It is essential that support services are culturally relevant and serve the needs of diverse groups without exposing them to the risk of social isolation or danger,” she said.
The report further identified that international students at times “did not know whether the behaviours the experience are sexual harassment or just part of Australian culture.” One submission outlined how an international PhD student was kissed by her supervisor, and she was unsure whether it was a standard part of Australian culture. Another submission expressed “concern around the impact of reporting on international students’ studies and visa status” showing the importance of multi-language accessibility in these areas.
The report reveals that students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse are more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted, both overall and on campus. Trans and gender diverse students were the most likely to be sexually harassed both on- and off-campus. Bisexual students were also 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted on campus.
LGBT+ students expressed unique concerns about reporting incidents; some feared that whoever they reported to might have prejudices against them for their identity, while others had not yet come out and did not feel comfortable reporting what had happened. The report recommends, among other things, that reporting processes are made flexible and accessible to a diverse range of students; this is an area where universities could improve substantially for LGBT+ students.
While students were able to identify as gender diverse, it is unclear whether the survey gave trans students the option of identifying themselves as male or female, meaning that it may not have been possible to look at a more detailed breakdown of the statistics for that group. However, given that trans and gender diverse students made up only 202 out of 30,930 responses, or 0.65 per cent of respondents, there might not have been enough data to analyse regardless.
When we remember that over 30,000 students across 39 universities responded to the survey, or about 2 per cent of the cumulative student body, one wonders what other insights could have been gleaned had there been a wider response.
Notably, the University’s reaction to the report did not mention the statistics around LGBT+ students, despite the high incident rates.