Where are we now: fighting sexual violence on campus

Katie Thorburn assesses a history of anti sexual assault activism.

Image source: USyd Women's Collective.

Sexual assault has been a persistent problem at the University of Sydney for decades. In 1977 a woman, Annette Morgan, was found raped and murdered on St Paul’s College Oval. In 2009, students at St Paul’s, an all male residential college on campus, created a ‘pro-rape’ Facebook group called Define Statutory: Pro-Rape, Anti-Consent. In 2014, a USyd student, Alexander Wright, took an explicit photo of a student without her consent and shared this image with other students. Despite carrying a maximum sentence of 2 years, USyd management deemed that the act was ‘not serious’ and did not punish Mr. Wright, who was also a Residential Leader at an on-campus residential facility.

But for as long as there has been rampant sexual assault on campus, there have also been feminist activists, most notably the Women’s Collective (WoCo), fighting to eradicate violence against women on campus. And over the past couple of years the fight to make management take these issues seriously has heated up.

In early 2016, student journalist Aparna Balakumar exposed a journal created by the Wesley College student club that called women “sluts” and “hoes”, gave out a “best tits” award, and featured the now infamous “Rack Web”, an infographic depicting a network of sexual relations between different Wesleyians. WoCo responded to this publication by staging a protest outside Wesley College, with black tape over their mouths symbolising the silence around the degradation of women.

In the later parts of 2016, WoCo organised a now infamous protest on USyd’s Open Day. Protesters made and brought mattresses emblazoned with slogans such as “red tape won’t cover up rape” and “don’t rape”. Later about 20 members and supporters of WoCo stormed a parent information session hoisting these mattresses in an act that represented the burden faced by sexaul assault survivors on campus. WoCo took control of the microphones and survivors spoke of their traumatic experience with the University after their assaults. Ironically, university management and security turned off the lights—literally putting survivors in the dark. WoCo’s effective media campaign added to this, pressuring the university into yielding to demands to overhaul sexual assault reporting mechanisms and taking broader action.

The national conversation reached an apex last year when the Australian Human Rights Commision (AHRC) undertook a national report into sexual violence in university communities. This report only came about because of consistent pressure by student activists. The report’s origins lie in efforts of The Hunting Ground Australia Project (THGAP), a group which was established via philanthropy to screen the eponymous documentary throughout Australia. These funds also stipulated that a report be conducted into sexual assault on campus, so THGAP approached the AHRC and Universities Australia (UA) to initiate that process. Universities Australia understood that an investigation would take place with or without them, and so co-opted the report into the ‘Respect. Now. Always’ campaign to make it seem as if they were taking initiative. This also allowed them to influence the report towards their interests and away from solving entrenched problems on campuses

In the lead up to the report’s release many actions were taken by USyd and other universities’ women’s collectives. A new group End Rape On Campus (EROC) augmented these efforts, helping the report to have maximum impact. Firstly, UA was not going to release individual university’s data sets, meaning the public and students would not see the full extent of the report. However, through campaigning, universities agreed to release their data sets. UA also attempted to release the report during the exam or holiday period, a move that would have made it difficult for campus organisers to mount an effective campaign. Moreover, releasing these likely traumatic findings during the exam period could have also induced catasphrophic stress among survivors. USyd WoCo and other survivor advocates fought hard to have the date of the release pushed back and organised a highly effective rally starting at USyd and marching to UTS on the day of the release.

However, the report and AHRC came under scrutiny for not conducting the survey in the most effective and appropriate ways. For one, the survey could not be paused, meaning that survivors reliving trauma were unable to return to their submission in the event it became overwhelming. Moreover, the questions were poorly worded, stressing issues of sexual harassment more-so than sexual assault, a feature reflected in the absence of a behaviour based definition of sexual assault. It was also later revealed that UA had a hand in the creation of the survey. Given these shortcomings, it is possible that many instances were not reported. Nonetheless, the commission still received more submissions in its first month of fielding submissions than any other complete report submission ever undertaken. Furthermore the report’s recommendations were disappointing, with many of them vague enough for universities to be able to pay lip service to progress while failing to implement effective and rigorous measures.

For an example of what those effective and rigorous measures would look like, one need look no further than the reports released by EROC and The Human Rights Centre (THRC) at UNSW early to mid 2017. EROC’s is called the ‘Connecting the Dots’ report and THRC’s is called ‘Reaching Safe Ground: Addressing Sexual Assault and Harassment at Australian Universities’.

The demands to eradicate sexual violence are simple: Proper consequences for perpetrators safety measures for survivors, and preventative measures to ensure sexual violence does not occur in the first place. So far management has mostly only done minor initiatives, which are merely window dressing this entrenched problem. These superficial initiatives include a poster campaign run by UA called ‘Respect. Now. Always’, and as of this year, the University of Sydney will have an online consent module called Consent Matters you may have already seen on MyUni consent module, the module that was chosen is not evidence based at changing behaviour, and can be skipped through. It is also not a substitute for face-to-face consent education.

Essentially, university management sees this issue as a PR issue that could affect their bottom line, not as a duty to protect their students whom they have a duty of care to. This was poignant in meetings that Women’s Officers and other elected office bearers of the SRC would have with management. These meetings originated in dealing with the prevalence of sexual assault on campus in 2015. The meetings were later named Safer Community Working Group, a subtle euphemism for the issue the group was to ‘work’ on, yet further enough away that they—management – could deploy tactics to water down attempts for change. They would add random students to the group, meaning discussions would have to start again, or it would deflect the short time had in meetings to explain something to the newer members. They’d also bring up other important issues: trying to make us pick which one was more important to dwindle our efforts. If students asked too many questions they were cast as aggressive and not ‘team players’. These meetings are largely for show and an attempt to point to a line of communication to attempt to suppress protesting which put the university in a bad light.

Despite heavily critiquing Consent Matters in these meetings and student representatives giving their disapproval, management went ahead with it anyway. It’s clear they wanted a cheap and easy shield to deflect attention away from the exposed problem of sexual assault, rather than comprehensive preventative measures.

I can’t help but feel cynical about management’s approach to this issue. I have not been shown evidence that they truly care, on the contrary I see their care being their reputation and subsequent profit. If you feel particularly passionate about this issue, one thing that’s clear is getting involved into the Women’s Collective is a way to make a difference. When it comes to sexual violence, student activists will not be silenced.