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Sydney University estimates 340 unreported sexual assaults a year, according to new data

Tom Joyner reports on new sexual assault data brought to light.

An estimated 340 incidents of sexual assault, indecent assault, and acts of indecency have gone unreported at the University of Sydney every year for the past five years, a rate close to one every day, according to projections based on the University’s own data.

Documents obtained by Honi Soit under freedom of information legislation show there were a total of 17 such incidents reported on campus between May 2011 and May 2016. Of the incidents, only six involved NSW Police.

But a report on sexual harassment and assault prepared by the University earlier this year found the rate that students made such reports was extremely low, with the university estimating a rate of just one in every hundred.

Taken together, this indicates a potential total 1,700 over the five year period, or 340 per year.

Campus sexual assault survivor advocate Sharna Bremner, from the Australian branch of advocacy group End Rape on Campus (EROC), said the number was not surprising.

“If you consider as a rule in wider society you’re looking at one in five women [will be sexually assaulted] and the age you’re likely to become a victim of sexual assault is the age you are a student,” she said. “It fits in perfectly with the university demographic.”

In an emailed statement to Honi, a spokesperson for the University denied any conclusions could be drawn from the data, though did not given any reasons why.

“The two datasets are entirely discrete and therefore no specific conclusions can be drawn from a comparison,” the spokesperson said. “The University recognises that there is a general trend of underreporting. The University encourages students to report all incidents so the appropriate support and care can be provided to students, and disciplinary action taken.”

Campus sexual assault has found a media spotlight over the last 12 months with the screening of US documentary film The Hunting Ground on Australian campuses, as well as an anonymous survey conducted by the National Union of Students late last year that found 17 per cent of respondents had experienced rape.

The same survey found only three per cent reported the incident to their university, with the majority of respondents saying they did not do so because they felt the incident was not serious enough.

“If only one per cent [of sexual assaults] are being reported, I think there needs to be a fundamental overhaul of the reporting system,” said Sydney University SRC women’s officer Anna Hush. “The University has failed to prevent sexual assault from happening.”

The issue of campus sexual assault was brought to national attention in May in the wake of news of Wesley College’s infamous ‘Rack Web’ student journal, which prompted the University to Sydney to appoint former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to head a taskforce to address entrenched cultures of sexism among its residential colleges.

The new data gives an insight into the mammoth problem of campus sexual assault, as well as universities’ ability and willingness to address it.

Universities have long been accused of being interested more in preserving their image and reputation than responding seriously to incidents of sexual assault, with several reports of mishandled cases at Australian universities in recent months alone.

“I think for Sydney University, that’s a university that does get a lot of media coverage. Things happen there on a regular basis that do make it into the media,” said Sharna Bremner. “Sydney Uni has had a lot of publicity and a lot of time to clean things up and just hasn’t done so.”

“I think it’s too easy for people to dismiss it without the media coverage, and what we’re seeing lately, they can no longer sweep it under the rug.”

Accurate sexual assault data is almost impossible to gather due to a number of institutional and personal factors that prevent victims from coming forward to report it, often meaning the issue flies under the radar.

The issue is particularly serious at residential colleges, said Bremner. “The response to the Hunting Ground screenings has been ‘Oh, it hasn’t been as bad here because we don’t have fraternities’.”

“I think the colleges are our fraternities.”

But obtaining sexual assault data from universities under New South Wales freedom of information instrument, the GIPA Act, is fraught for a host of privacy reasons.

Honi requested data on reported sexual assaults on the campuses of five major NSW universities under the GIPA Act, including the University of Sydney, UNSW, Western Sydney University, the University of Newcastle and the University of Wollongong.

The University of Sydney is the only of the five to provide an estimated reporting rate. However, it did not disclose times, dates or locations of the assaults, nor names of parties involved, for reasons of privacy.