USyd is failing survivors of sexual violence on clinical placement

The Faculty of Medicine and Health needs to support students speaking out about sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions.

CW: Sexual harassment.

Speaking out about institutional responses to sexual harassment isn’t an act of bravery, it’s a suicide mission: one where you have to be at the point where you have already lost everything because if not, you lose everything. If there is one thing the world has taught us, it’s that women who speak up about any form of sexual violence are treated deplorably. We speak our truths and open ourselves up to be a public firing range, a succinct target for retaliation — from the public, from the institutions whose care we are under, and from the people who are supposed to protect us. 

My first clinical placement consisted of eight-hour unpaid shifts, long commutes, heavy manual work, unsafe working conditions, and corners being cut with disregard to patient safety, all under the guise of an educational “experience”. When I spoke out over a year ago about several elements of maltreatment which student nurses experience on clinical placement, I was told by the nursing faculty that: “One advantage of having clinical placement early in the programme is to help you identify whether nursing is the profession that you thought it might be.” As though to say, if you can’t stomach the sexual harassment, maltreatment, three-hour commutes, the lack of support, unsafe and unpaid working conditions, then maybe you should leave the programme and the profession. 

The reticence of the Faculty of Medicine and Health to acknowledge the student nursing experience is not surprising, because acknowledgement means accountability and accountability would mean liability. The hostile reactions I received from multiple members of the School of Nursing was a choice that they made — a choice to feed the cycle of maltreatment and sexual harassment and avoid any responsibility or knowledge of how students are exposed to these behaviours on clinical placement. They assumed the role of incapable guardians, forcing us into unsafe workspaces if we want to complete our degrees. Ultimately, the Faculty of Medicine and Health needs to take a long look at their legal obligations to their students who are under their duty of care, and support students speaking out about sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions if they want to end the cycle of sexual violence and maltreatment on clinical placement. However, it has become quite clear to me that they do not. 

But this article isn’t for or about them — their legacy is already sealed, especially for those who knew and did nothing. This article is for nursing, dentistry, occupational therapy, physical therapy, medical, pharmacy, speech pathology, and social work students. I see you, I am you, and I share in our collective grief. Where we encounter unwell and vulnerable patients who engage with us in sexual violence, I see you, I am you. When we encounter predatory, sound of mind patients who don’t hesitate to raptorially play off the power dynamics between patient and students, I see you, I am you. When the university sends you back to the same hospital, to the same building, where it all happened, and you end up sobbing into your partner’s arms for hours during panic attacks before your shift, I see you, I am you. Regardless of what the Faculty of Medicine and Health says when they talk about being “all in this together,” — as they sit in their homes on their six-figure salaries, and we line up at the food banks to put food on the table while working 42 days in a row during unpaid clinical placements, with our ironed shirts and screwed on smiles — I see you, I am you.

I was speaking in passing about sexual harassment to an undergraduate nursing student who goes to USyd, and she said something that stuck with me: “Oh the sexual harassment, you get used to it.” Please know that it is not your fate to “get used to” sexual harassment in the workplace. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to tolerate it, it should not be a part of your nursing experience. It does not “come with the job” and you have the right, and deserve, to be safe at work. You don’t have to grin and bear it. You don’t have to accept it. You don’t have to smile politely and laugh it off in order to preserve your therapeutic working relationship. And when you go home and feel gross about what happened, when you feel anxious for your next placement, know that you haven’t failed, you haven’t failed your patients. The University has failed you, they have failed in their duty of care to protect you and other students from a known issue — revealed in decades worth of research — that they have done nothing to redress. You have the right to a safe workplace, you have the right to not be sexually harassed, and you have the right to not have to endure any form of sexual violence, ever. 

While we can never pretend to understand the moral arc of the universe, I can only hope that it bends towards justice. This is for every student who has been groped on clinical placement, who has had unwanted sexual contact with patients, for those who have been bullied by upper management, facilitators, and hospital colleagues, dismissed by the Faculty of Medicine and Health and forced to pick up the slack for a groaning, flailing, NSW Health workforce. I see you, I care about you, and your safety matters to me. 

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