International students: Nina Funnell on the hidden voice of #MeToo

The author of The Red Zone Report reflects on #MeToo, Colleges and the watershed moments of her career

CW: Sexual assault

University is a space to talk, to agitate outdated preconceptions and promote discourses of acceptance, progress and change. Why then, is sexual assault on campus so often swept under the rug?

Walkley Award-winning journalist and co-author of The Red Zone Report, Nina Funnell, refuses to shy away from the discussion. The University of Sydney media graduate is now an ambassador for End Rape on Campus Australia, and she is determined to make her alma mater sit up and listen.

While the focus of sexual assault reporting on campus has predominantly been on the colleges, Funnell believes the key to levering institutional change may lie with international students.

International students, who comprise over twenty percent of the student population at USyd, are a critical source of income to the University. Yet, they are one of the groups who are most vulnerable to sexual assault, due to language barriers, lacking domestic support networks, fear of losing their visa and an institutional bias that precludes them from seeking help and reporting violence.

Funnell recounts an instance where a Study Abroad student attempting to lodge a formal rape complaint, was openly advised by the police that “there’s no point in them making a formal report, because they’re not going to be here by the time it would proceed to trial”.

What is most concerning is the sheer number of students who could have been given the same advice and left with no recourse for justice or closure. Authorities appear more interested in protecting the $32.2 billion international student education industry than the safety of the very individuals who sustain it.

“If you threaten the international student dollar … That actually could be the thing that would make universities sit up and take notice,” she says.

Funnell believes that the change so desperately needed may only be spurned if there’s a change to the bottom dollar — if universities see a drop in the number of international students, due to a poor reputation for protecting students, decision-makers may finally prioritise student safety. And she is determined to be that whistleblower. “No one is talking about it, no one is publishing on it … [but] it’s such an important story to tell.”

A survivor of sexual assault herself, Funnell’s passion in the cause lies close to home. Her exposure to campus sexual assault began second-hand, as confidant of her friends, and later, as a teacher whose students came to her for comfort. The more stories she heard, the clearer it became how intrinsically attitudes of misogyny, sexism and homophobia were linked to collegiate culture.

“The turning point for me was with that pro-rape Facebook group,” she says, referring to the page created by students of St Paul’s College in 2009, ‘Define Statutory: pro-rape, anti-consent’. To Funnell, this signalled a watershed moment for the colleges to “finally … accept that they needed to address their toxic culture”,

The college’s failure to commence cultural intervention work, instead relying on tokenistic acts and “reframe and minimisation tactics” to appease its critics, was unequivocal evidence that “something more systemic need[ed] to be done”.

In continuing to speak out about the subject, Funnell will appear as a panellist for FASS’ ‘Outside the Square’ event on May 31, discussing ‘#MeToo: Male Privilege on Notice’.

Reflecting on the #MeToo movement during our conversation, she compares the experience of going public about her own assault ten years ago with the ease of sharing information online today.

“Back then, you had to go through these traditional gatekeepers” of newspaper editors who regulated the traffic of information from the private to the public sphere. Now, she believes, social media has democratised the public space by enabling survivors of sexual assault and rape to share their stories instantly.

 However, our unique historical position poses the critical question: “How do we take the momentum of the #MeToo movement and then translate it into actual, real-world results?” In isolation, social media can do little more than raise awareness about social causes. Funnell stresses that #MeToo must be supplemented by meaningful educational, political and cultural reform, or risk becoming a mere “fig leaf for inaction”.

She highlights the danger of ‘slacktivism’, whereby individuals glean a false sense of accomplishment by hopping on a social media bandwagon and assuming that a hashtag is enough to overhaul the misogynistic attitudes embedded in our social interactions.

During our discussion, we cannot ignore the looming presence of the Cultural Renewal at the University of Sydney Residential Colleges report, otherwise known as the Broderick Review. Funnell criticises its methodology, revealing that USyd contributed over $700,000 towards the independent research. One can’t help but question the irony of non-college students and taxpayers being made to shoulder the financial burden of investigating the misdemeanour of college attendees.

This incredulity only grows when Nina reveals that $10,000 of funding for the Broderick Review was directed towards reimbursing college students for participating in the review, in effect, “financially reward[ing Colleges] for their bad behaviour”. However, this is not to suggest bad behaviour of any specific interviewee — who indeed may have been a victim of the same systemic bad behaviour themselves.

What is even more troubling, says Funnell, is the misguided nature of Elizabeth Broderick’s Recommendation 14, which proposes that the University amend its code of conduct to prohibit “disrespectful, demeaning or unethical behaviours from University staff and other students towards College students and staff”. She argues that constructing a dichotomy between individuals within and outside of the colleges does not address the crux of the matter: that the majority of sexual assault cases on campus, regardless of the victim’s status, are perpetrated by college students. Drawing lines between an ‘us’ and ‘them’ does no more than “confer[…] special status on college students” without tackling ingrained attitudes that underpin sexual violence.

If implemented, Recommendation 14 could restrict journalistic freedom and the public’s ability to levy criticism towards the rampant sexism that pervades college culture. This prompts a reassessment of our own agency in holding the University and colleges accountable for this student safety deficit. Passivity, after all, is one step short of apathy.

What sets the Nina Funnells of this world apart from the rest is sheer courage. Funnell wields her power of speech as a sword and the knowledge that she is doing what is right as a shield against inbred societal structures that march to the beat of ‘change takes time’. We as a student body, therefore, are responsible for ensuring that she is fighting with us, not for us.