Sexual assault and sexual harassment at universities: “A conversation that is terribly overdue”

With the Australian Human Rights Commission releasing a breakthrough report on sexual violence and harassment at Australian universities, Jack Moran looks at the data and what it means for UON students.

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and harassment

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has published a landmark report on sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities. The report, which was released at a livestreamed media conference on Tuesday, was the result of a survey of more than 30,000 students from Australia’s 39 universities conducted in 2016. From the University of Newcastle, there were 623 participants from UON. The conference featured speeches from AHRC President Dr Rosalind Croucher, AHRC Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, Universities Australia chair Professor Margaret Gardner and National Union of Students President Sophie Johnson.

If you’ve been following this story, you may have seen headlines saying that one in five students have been sexually harassed at Australian universities, but this isn’t strictly the case. Rather, the data says that more than one in five (21 percent) of respondents to the survey had been sexually harassed at university in 2016. For UON, it was 30 percent. We can’t necessarily generalise the statistic to the 1.3 million or more students who attend university in Australia. The percentage could be less but it also could be more and given that one of the findings of the report was that students often didn’t know that an action constituted sexual harassment, more is a definite possibility.

Ultimately, and this is something that was reflected in the speeches made during the media conference, any number of students being harassed or assaulted is unacceptable and must be dealt with. Furthermore, prevalence is only one of the key themes of the reports – the others being the nature and the reporting of sexual harassment and sexual assault at Australian universities.

One of the major findings on the nature of sexual harassment and sexual assault was that 51% of respondents who were sexually assaulted and 45% of students who were sexually harassed knew some or all of the perpetrators. This was the case for 53% of UON respondents. This is contrary to how we often view sexual assault and harassment. National Union of Students President Sophie Johnson noted this in her remarks saying that “we’re told that sexual violence is a stranger who jumps out of the bushes and attacks you, not your classmate or a supposed friend”. Viewing sexual assault and sexual harassment as being the product of bad lighting and walking alone at night does not fully account for the culture that doesn’t respect and understand consent.

The report also made clear that some demographics disproportionately responded that they had experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment. Women who responded to the survey were twice as likely to have been sexually harassed and three times as likely to have been sexually assaulted at university in 2016. Similarly, trans and gender diverse students were more likely to have been harassed at university in 2016 and students who identified as bisexual were more likely to have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed at university in 2016 than those who identified as heterosexual.

The report also found that responding students overwhelmingly did not report sexual assault and harassment or seek support from their universities. Nationally, 94% percent of the students in the report who were sexually harassed and 87% of the students who were sexually assaulted did not make a formal complaint to their university. UON’s figures are the same for sexual harassment but the statistics for UON respondents who were sexually assaulted was not available. The report notes that students often didn’t report because they either didn’t feel like the incident was serious enough, they didn’t feel like the university would do anything or they were unsure of what the reporting procedures even were. This speaks to not only the culture surrounding sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australia, but also to the clarity of procedures at Australian universities.

A final element of the report is what universities can and should be doing to tackle the sexual assault and sexual harassment that is faced by students. The AHRC makes five key areas of recommendations including strong leadership from university officials in dealing with the issue, developing programs that will help to change attitudes towards sexual harassment and sexual assault, implementation of effective and clear support and reporting processes, continual monitoring and improvement of all initiatives undertaken, and specifically ensuring that the culture within residential colleges change as well.

In a media release, the Newcastle University Students Association President Michael Labone said that students need institutional reform. “NUSA will work with the University of Newcastle to do everything we can to reduce sexual violence on campus and ensure the safety of students,” he said in his statement. Pheobe Turnbull, acting NUSA Queer Convenor said that “the Queer Collective will work to make sure that the safety and support of queer students is made an utmost priority.” Liz Murphy-May, NUSA Women’s convenor also said that “NUSA is committed to making sure that any campaign in this space keeps the responsibility for sexual violence firmly on the perpetrator and never the victim.”

If you need specialist support, you can contact:

  • National Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence National Help Line on 1800 Respect (1800 737 732) 
  • UON Campus Care on 4921 8600 (Monday to Friday)
  • National University Support Line on 1800 572 224

The full NHRC report can be found here.

The full UON-specific statistics can be found here.

Title quote from the National Union of Students President Sophie Johnson’s remarks.

Feature Image: Australian Human Rights Commission Livestream via Youtube