If consent matters to USyd management, why are they still failing survivors?

Ahead of the National Safety Survey, what has uni management done since the last report on campus sexual assault?

Art by Amelia Mertha

CW: sexual violence

Orientation weeks (‘o-weeks’) across Australia are known to be the most dangerous time of the student calendar. It is during this period that 1 in 8 of all incidents of sexual violence are perpetrated. This is why, to mitigate the association between sexual violence and USyd’s ‘O-Week’, in 2019 management renamed our orientation week ‘Welcome Week’. This was an adoption of a recommendation to colleges by the Broderick Review of 2018. As Honi editors back then, including former Women’s Officer Jessica Syed, commented in their report on orientation week’s fluffy face-lift, “When some behaviour is so entrenched in specific institutions, to the extent that it is hailed as tradition, it’s unlikely that any name change will reduce sexual violence at USyd…at least so long as residential college procedures and accountability mechanisms remain clandestine.” 

At WoCo’s ‘Welcome Week’ stall this year, a collective member overheard a first year college-resident saying that she’d “already seen rape culture” at her college. The timing of Welcome Week with emerging news of Chanel Contos’ petition for holistic high school consent education in the wake of thousands of stories of sexual violence that Contos received, was unsurprising but deeply felt, and for many survivors, re-traumatising. 

There is little question that holistic consent and sex education is severely lacking from school curriculums, and that this results in an aggregious pipeline of toxic masculinity, misogyny, rape culture and apologism from high schools straight into university campuses and colleges. This can also come hand-in-hand with the elitism and privilege of rich (usually private-school educated) kids who remain crudely loyal to those college institutions unwilling to take full accountability for historical violence committed. WoCo’s campaign to dismantle the colleges is routinely trivialised as something done out of spite (for what? who knows) rather than something integral to our unwavering belief in body autonomy and an accessible, free education. 

University should not be the place where someone first learns about affirmative consent, body autonomy, or “stealthing”.  Yet, given what kids aren’t learning at high school (and certainly not learning by example from governments) universities need to foster and advocate an environment that openly talks about consent and sex. University should never be a place that forces students who are survivors to choose between their education and their mental health, that makes safe accomodation inaccessible. It should be a place that encourages survivor-centric responses to harm, instead of those that save reputations. USyd management must reckon with the rape epidemic that it faces; not drag its feet behind the tireless work of activists and survivors 

This September, Universities Australia is running the National Student Safety Survey. This project is a follow up, aiming to build upon the Ausralian Human Rights Comission survey that culminated in the 2017 National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities. This original report was a harrowing account of the prevalence, location, and nature of sexual assault at Australian universities. It also included numerous recommendations, broadly covering leadership, changing attitudes and behaviours, updating responses to reported cases, and cultural changes within residential colleges. According to the Social Research Centre, the new project aims to “measure the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment experiences among university students at Australian universities”. Named more broadly than its predecessor, the National Student Safety Survey claims that it will “build on and extend the foundational survey”, introducing differences such as behavioural questions. 

However, it should be noted that this project is one of multiple follow-ups from the past few years alone. 2018 saw both the Broderick Report by the independent consulting company Elizabeth Broderick & Co along with the Red Zone Report by advocacy group End Rape on Campus (EROC), who directly engaged with previous University of Sydney Women’s Officers and the Women’s Collective. The former was commissioned by The University of Sydney itself along with St Paul’s college, aiming to be a ‘cultural review’ including qualitative data on leadership, diversity, alcohol consumption, hazing and “the experiences of women” relating to sexual misconduct with  recommendations for reform. Contrastingly, the Red Zone Report, more independent and informed by stakeholders, aimed to address the shortcomings of the Broderick Report. These included detailed historical context and first-hand survivor accounts using higher standards of research, along with more direct and confronting recommendations. 

Despite their differences, both reports paint a clear and gut-wrenching picture: USyd is facing an epidemic of sexual violence on campus, and the problem starts at the residential colleges. Sexist culture within universities runs deep, its historical roots and modern attendants holding it firmly in place, with real and debilitating outcomes for students. The plethora of research and recommendations plead universities to change, though these institutions continue to drag their feet. 

It is important to remember that surveys and statistics are not immune from enacting a kind of archival violence themselves by dehumanising people into/as data and rehashing these statistics into oblivion. Certainly, numbers tell a story – but not the whole story. They often obscure the actual experiences and needs of survivors, and cannot replace real institutional and cultural action. Other than assessing the effectiveness of current strategies, will another survey realistically spur USyd management to do what has been demanded by survivors for years? 

What has USyd management done since the last report?

Each year,  the SRC Women’s Officers and President sit on a committee called the Safer Communities Advisory Group alongside representatives from the USU, SUPRA, colleges and residential housing, SUSF and campus security. Given WoCo’s strong stance on the colleges and carceral responses to safety, it is admittedly disconcerting to join these meetings. Our inclusion on this committee can only ever be tokenistic and box-ticking when management does not listen to us, engage with us in any other way, and uses other departments on the committee to reign us in. As ex-Women’s Officer Katie Thorburn wrote in 2018, “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.” 

Under the ‘Safer Communities’ banner, there is a small team established in November 2019 who provide trauma and administration support for survivors of sexual misconduct. The Safer Communities Office are able to provide a direct line to student services, the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, emergency accomodation and the local police. This year the Safer Communities Office has provided in-person consent training to the colleges, and through Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVSA), offered in-person first responder training for student groups including WoCo and others within the SRC. With only four Student Liaison Officers in this team, this seems hardly sufficient to support tens of thousands of USyd students and staff with the addition of alumni and the public who (since late 2020) may report on historical sexual misconduct or that which involves university property or university groups.

Over 100,000 students have completed the Consent Matters online learning module since it was introduced in 2018. Though we are far from the first to say so, the ubiquity of online learning and meetings should bring into sharp relief how lacking the module is in lieu of face-to-face consent education. It still takes no more than an hour to complete, is hardly memorable, and has been understandably ridiculed for ineffectiveness since the idea surfaced. By giving the answers immediately, the module offers no opportunity for students to think about and reflect on what they do and don’t know. Sure, it has no milkshakes involved but how exactly are we meant to believe that the module has genuinely destigmatised conversations about consent, sex, and body autonomy?

We can confidently say that the university has not made meaningful change to the rape culture prevailing within student community. Instead, it has renamed our orientation week while letting events such as Rad Sex and Consent Week disappear. It has closed the F23 building to anti-sexual violence activism and stood by as the colleges deeply embarrass themselves time and time again. It has left anti-sexual violence activists and the Women’s Collective to defend themselves against misogynists and rape apologists only to then turn around and threaten the continuation of our enrolment. 

A National Day of Action

To hold our university accountable to support survivors during the roll-out of the National Safety Survey, a National Day of Action (NDA) against sexual violence on campuses has been planned for October 6 amongst Women’s Collectives in every state and territory.  

We demand:  

  1. End sexual violence against students everywhere — at home, on campus, at work. 
  2. Accountability from universities: Release the survey’s findings.
  3. Increase and improve survivor support services.
  4. Abolish the colleges — build safe and affordable student housing.
  5. Earlier, holistic, direct sex education in high school and university.

It cannot be understated that the last demand — the implementation and practical support of earlier, holistic and direct consent and sex education in schools — is absolutely crucial to ending sexual violence. Sex education is crucial preventative work against sexual violence. Sex education must be an ongoing conversation, which is  why WoCo is bringing back Radical Sex and Consent Week in Week 8 of this semester, to continue these important conversations on sexual autonomy and positivity. 

Stand up for survivors and help hold this university accountable. Come to the NDA against sexual violence on campus on October 6th, and follow WoCo on social media for updates (@usydwoco).

Contacts for support

  • Safer Communities Office (Student Liaison Officers) | 02 8627 6808 or 1 800 SYD HLP (1800 793 457)  | safer-communities.officer@sydney.edu.au | open Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 5:30pm 
  • The University of Sydney’s Reporting Module: if you need to report a case of sexual assault to the university or submit a disclosure, use the “Report an Incident” box at https://sydney.edu.au/students/sexual-assult/report-to-the-university.html  
  • NSW Rape Crisis Centre | 1800 424 017 | Free hotline available 24/7 run by experienced professionals who can provide support, counselling, and referrals. 
  • Sexual Assault Clinic at RPA Hospital | (02) 9515 9040 | Face-to-face and telephone counselling services, as well as medical services such as forensic kits and STI testing, available to outpatients (i.e. you don’t need to be checked into the hospital). 
  • USyd Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) | 8627 8422 | free counselling services available to USyd students.