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As university gets underway for another year, there are a few things I would like to say to all students, new and returning:

University should be a safe place for all students, somewhere you can learn and be yourself without fear. Your time at university should be one of the best periods of your life.

However, despite the freedom that this chapter of your life might bring, remember that your actions do not only affect you and can impact the entire university community.

A recent report released by End Rape on Campus reveals an alarming prevalence of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses. According to the report, despite over 500 cases of sexual harassment and assault being reported to Australian universities over a five-year period, only six students have been removed from university in that time.

It is everyone’s responsibility to maintain a safe and welcoming campus environment. There are a few simple ways you can do this. These include:

  1. Ensuring that you’re seeking out consent. Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission, or says “yes” to an activity with someone else. Consent is always freely given and all people in a situation must feel that they are able to say “yes” or “no” or stop the situation at any point. Consent may not be able to be given if a person is drunk and does not fully understand the situation they’re in. This video uses a pretty cool tea analogy to explain consent.
  2. Understand that sexual violence occurs on a continuum, including behaviours ranging from sexist jokes through to sexual assault and these these acts are intrinsically linked to each other.
  3. Acknowledging that sexual harassment and harassment is the sole responsibility of the perpetrator. This is regardless of how the victim was behaving, what they were wearing or their alcohol intake. In the same way that you wouldn’t blame someone for getting their car stolen because it was flashy and new, don’t blame a person for being sexually assaulted just because of what they were wearing.

As much as the issue of safety on campus is the responsibility of individuals, it is also a systemic problem. This means it needs to be addressed by education institutions through policy, education and by ensuring reporting procedures are transparent and accessible. A critical component of this is ensuring that appropriate action is taken when incidents of sexual violence are reported.

As students we need to feel confident that reporting and investigation processes will work for us.

Last year, Universities Australia conducted the first ever Australia wide survey on sexual assault at universities. If you were a student last year, you may remember filling out this survey. The results are due to be released this year, with university specific data provided to each university. This is a monumental step in the journey to make campuses safer for all students. This the first time we will have statistically significant data about students’ experiences with sexual assault on campus, and we’ll be able to understand specific insights about the experiences of marginalised groups on campus.

UMSU is appalled by the findings of the End Rape on Campus survey. We are committed to ensuring that all students are able to feel safe on campus. To this end, we will be continuing to work with the University to implement long term change.

If you would like to get in touch with us about this issue, or would like to be involved in our ongoing campaign for a safe campus, free of sexual harassment and violence, please get in contact with the UMSU Women’s department.

The University’s Safer Communities team can also provide advice and assistance to students who have been the victims of sexual violence. They can be contacted at safercommunity.unimelb.edu.au or on (03) 9035 8675.

Yan Zhuang
UMSU President

Here are some additional resources:

Safer Community Program
http://safercommunity.unimelb.edu.au/help-for-sexual-assault-issues
(03) 9035 8675

1800RESPECT – National counselling helpline, information and support 24/7
www.1800respect.org.au
1800 737 732

Sexual Assault Crisis Line
www.sacl.com.au
1800 806 292

Women’s Health Clinics
womenshealthclinics.com.au/Melbourne

Words by Lyndal Rowlands
Illustration by Sebastian Clark

Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual assault and domestic abuse.

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American university students who have survived sexual assault are challenging stigma and ‘victim-blaming’ by speaking out about their experiences. By working together they have put sexual assault squarely on the national political agenda. In January 2014, President Obama gave his support for their campaign, announcing a White House Task force  to address the issue, he said: “Sexual assault is an affront to our basic decency and humanity. And it’s about all of us—the safety of those we love most: our moms, our wives, our daughters and our sons.”

The accompanying White House report noted, “no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women.”

Two students, past and present, from the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino have been at the forefront of a growing movement to address sexual violence on campus. Working to raise the profile of rape survivors has gained them widespread support in the The Huffington Post, CNN, New York Times, Glamour Magazine and, more recently, the BBC.

When Clark and Pino began to speak out, they found many students around the country shared similar experiences. For most survivors, their universities hadn’t provided adequate emotional and physical protection. Since most of the students affected were female, they turned to Title IX of the American Civil Rights Act, which states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program.”

“The high rates of sexual assault on female students contribute to an unequal learning environment, which is a violation of federal law,” Clark explained. “In the US, statistics show that women are assaulted at universities at an astoundingly high rate; between one in four and one and five women will experience assault or attempted assault during their time in college. There is not much reason to believe that this is different at higher education institutes in Australia.”

“Women who have survived such assaults often have their education impacted in severe ways.” She said that in the US, “When the university does little or nothing to support these students, they are in violation of federal law.”

Clark and Pino are part of a growing movement called IX Network. Clark said, “We now have a network of over 800 survivors advocating for change. It’s been amazing to connect people with personal support and to learn from each other, but also, as a collective, we are able to put pressure on our schools and government for policy change.”

Clark’s own story has been shared countless times—not so much how she was assaulted, but what happened next. When Clark reported to her university that she had been sexually assaulted, a female staff member told her, “Rape is like football, and if you look back on the game, Annie, what would you do differently in that situation?”

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At a press conference in New York in 2013, Clark explained how this made her feel. “I was being blamed for a violent crime committed against me,” she said.

Victim-blaming is just as common in Australia. After a 21-year-old woman was sexually assaulted on Grattan Street in 2012, a (female) Senior Constable remarked to the media, “It’s just a matter of being aware of your environment and not leaving yourself in a vulnerable position.”

Comments like these extend the onus of the victim beyond reason. This Senior Constable holds the victim responsible for the perpetrator, as if the woman had provoked her attacker. Women’s safety becomes not a right, but a privilege that must be earned through good behaviour.

There has been little research into the specific prevalence of sexual assault and violence amongst university students in Australia. What we do know is young women are at a high risk of violence. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey 2006, 12 per cent of women aged 18-24 said they had experienced at least one incident of violence. Yet 6.5 per cent of women aged 35-44 years said the same. A recent Lancet study showed very high rates of sexual violence by non-partners in Australia, relative to other countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. That same study suggested that abuse is common among dating partners.

Professor Murray Straus, Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, completed a comparative study of violence amongst university students across 16 countries in 2004. Straus explained that it is not widely known that “dating couples are even more likely to be violent than married couples, despite the fact that the higher rate has been demonstrated by more than 50 studies.”

To university students in Australia who are interested in following in IX Network’s footsteps, Annie suggests that students start doing research on sexual assault. “Look into your statistics about crime on university campuses and if rape and assault aren’t reported, do that research,” she said. “It doesn’t all have to be academic in the traditional sense either; bring survivors together, have them talk to each other and find the common threads.”

UMSU Wom*n’s Officer Stephanie Kilpatrick agrees that the undue focus on the person reporting the crime, rather than the perpetrator is part of the reason only a small percentage of rapes and assaults are reported. She says that on an every day basis students can help by calling out aspects of our culture which help to normalise rape and violence, such as rape jokes (‘fraped’) and songs like Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, which some argue questions boundaries of consent.

Another way University of Melbourne students can get involved is through Rad Sex and Consent week, which will be held at the Parkville campus in April. For more information contact the Wom*n’s Collective.

By speaking out, American survivors of abuse and assault are challenging the stereotypes, helping violence to prevail. Domestic abuse survivor Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED Talk ‘Why domestic violence victims don’t leave’ has been watched over 1.7 million times since January 2013. In the talk, Steiner explains, “I don’t look like a typical domestic violence survivor. I have a B.A. in English from Harvard College, an MBA from Wharton Business School.”

Steiner didn’t see herself as the stereotypical ‘battered wife’. Even she thought that she would never have to endure domestic violence, “I would have told you myself that I was the last person on earth who would stay with a man who beats me, but in fact I was a very typical victim because of my age. I knew nothing about domestic violence, its warning signs or its patterns”.

For survivors of trauma, speaking out and hearing stories of abuse and assault can be a trigger for post-traumatic stress. Clark is now being recognised in America—every day somebody approaches her to share his or her story.  Clark has described this as “vicarious trauma”. She says, “It’s very traumatic to hear these stories, but I think most of us have the motivation of wanting to make schools safer for the next generation of students. Sexual violence has always been an issue, particularly at university campuses. It’s not a matter of it happening more now … it’s the fact that more people are speaking out and we are connecting with each other.”

As President Obama reiterated in his speech in January, “Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.”

If you or friend need help or assistance:

In emergency situations or immediate danger call Police on 000.

For Melbourne University staff and students, support is available through a range of services, including Melbourne University Counseling, phone: (03) 8344 6927.

For 24/7 confidential help and referral in Australia call the National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counseling Line on 1800 737 732 (1800 RESPECT) online counseling is also available at www.1800respect.org.au.