Universities can no longer ignore survivors of campus rape culture

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Today is a day of mixed emotions. For the first time ever, the Australian Human Rights Commission has released national data on the prevalence rates of sexual assault within university communities.

For some, the results will be shocking. For many others the results merely confirm what we’ve known for decades: that young women experience frightening levels of sexual violence, particularly in their university years.


Universities brace for sexual assault report

A landmark survey of 31,000 students by the Australian Human Rights Commission is likely to raise further allegations of sexual assault on campus.

We know that at times like these, emotions often run high and we expect there will be anger, sadness, fear and relief. These feelings and experiences are all valid. 

Irrespective of what you hear in the public statements, news coverage and media releases, today belongs to the university sexual assault survivors, students, activists and their families. We didn’t arrive here because of the “bravery” of universities, or the “courage” of vice-chancellors, as was suggested at the launch in August last year.

We got here because of the strength and determination of survivors and their allies.

For more than half a century, students and survivors have been fighting for universities to address sexual violence within their communities. For more than half a century, universities have chosen to protect their reputations and financial interests, instead of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their students.

At End Rape On Campus Australia, we recently conducted a review of news reporting of rape at Australian universities.

We quickly discovered that since at least the 1960s student newspapers and mainstream media have been reporting on sexual assault and harassment at universities. But it would appear that despite bursts of media attention, the issue has often been swept under the rug, as universities implement their damage control strategies.

In one horrifying case, we discovered that in 1977, a young woman named Annette Morgan was found raped and murdered at Sydney University on St Paul’s Oval. Just days later, St Paul’s College hosted an awards evening giving the “Animal Act of the Year” trophy to a man accused of participating in an alleged gang rape.

About 100 university students and activists protested outside the next St Paul’s Council meeting, demanding the exact same things that students demand today: that the university take seriously the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus.

But the then warden of the college dismissed concerns, saying he’d “never heard such libellous nonsense”.

Just two years later, in 1979, the issue hit the media again when the national women’s officer of the Australian Union of Students published a “blacklist” of staff who had allegedly raped and assaulted female students.

Fast forward four decades, and we hear the same stories repeat themselves. Like the story revealed over the weekend of Matilda Duncan, a student from the University of Adelaide, who was allegedly assaulted by a visiting staff member.

In April, a University of Canberra law lecturer was found guilty of raping a student and indecently assaulting others, while showing another a pornographic PowerPoint slide.

Then there’s the story of Douglas Steele: a staff member from James Cook University who, after being charged with raping an Indigenous student in 2015, was promoted and made academic adviser to Indigenous students. (He remained in this role even after pleading guilty to the rape while he awaited sentencing, where he was provided a glowing character reference by a member of staff. He served just 17 weeks for the rape and is currently in the community.)

There is also the constant stream of stories pointing to rape culture on campus. We hear reports of groups of Australian students chanting “No means yes, yes means anal”, or making stubby-holders that say, “It’s not rape if it’s my birthday”, or creating Facebook posts referring to “rooting”, “slaying” and “harpooning” women.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information investigation we have more than 500 pages of police reports from the past five years detailing incidents of male students allegedly raping barely conscious women, photographing university women as they shower, or climbing through windows and sexually assaulting them as they sleep in college dorms.

We joined with Channel Seven, which conducted the largest ever FOI investigation in Australian history, uncovering that in the past five years there have been 575 formal reports of sexual misconduct made to universities, resulting in just six expulsions.

(Channel Seven also found that Sydney University attempted to block the release of CCTV footage of an assault, despite police wanting to publicise it to help identify the offender.)

Despite all of this, universities still claim they have taken a zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct on campus. They still claim that they are utterly transparent in approach. (Monash University is still yet to comply with Channel Seven’s FOI).

Well, no more.

The time for action is now. We cannot afford to let another decade slide past before the issue is robustly addressed. Not with better lighting campaigns or rape whistles or awareness posters or any other tactic that fails to address the root cause of rape. We need cultural reform.

Because the simple fact is that when we have men on campus chanting “grab them by the pussy” or making “Pro-rape” Facebook groups or singing “I wish that all the ladies were little red foxes and if I were a hunter I’d shoot up in their boxes”, the answer is not better lighting: it’s better attitudes.

So to all the student activists, advocates and allies who have fought this fight from the 1960s onwards: we thank you. Today belongs to you.

To every survivor who has reported harassment, assaults and rapes to their universities only to be ridiculed, ignored or silenced: we believe you. Today belongs to you.

To family, friends, student representatives and advocates who have chosen to believe survivors: we thank you and remind you that over the coming days, weeks and months ahead survivors are again going to need your strength and belief.

When we live in a society that tells us to do the exact opposite, believing survivors is a form of radical activism. But we are not going anywhere. And universities should be prepared for that.

Sharna Bremner is the director of End Rape On Campus Australia and Nina Funnell is a sexual assault advocate and ambassador for End Rape On Campus Australia.

If you or anyone you know has been impacted by sexual assault within university communities support is available by calling 1800 572 224. This hotline is operated by trauma counsellors at Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia.

Support is also available by contacting 1800 RESPECT and asking to be transferred to a trauma counsellor.



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