Responding with compassion: Sydney University’s sexual assault failure

July 29, 2017

As students commence semester two on August 1, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) will release a report entitled The University Sexual Assault and Harassment Project, the culmination of year-long research into the nature, prevalence and reporting of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in university communities. 

At the same time, universities have committed to publishing the rates of sexual assault at their campuses, which is a landmark achievement for feminist activists who have been campaigning for the survivors of sexual assault for decades and calling for transparency, accountability and compassion from university managements. 

For this report, the AHRC’s research methodology has been kept tightly under wraps. It is clear, however, from the national survey sent out to a sample of students, that because the survey does not use behavioural questions for inquiring into the prevalence of sexual assault, which is standard for such research, it is likely that the survey will under-report the actual instances of sexual assault in university communities.

Whatever the outcomes of the report, universities will seek to use this opportunity to advance their public image. They will posture as though they have been the ones who have driven institutional reform on sexual assault, not the decades’ long procession of dedicated Women’s Officers and feminist activists.

Universities Australia, which is a lobby group for university Vice Chancellors, has already tried to take ownership of the report by investing $1 million in the project — which is supposed to be independent — and successfully branding it as a part of its Respect. Now. Always. campaign.

Respect. Now. Always. has been primarily a symbolic initiative, the most significant fruits of which are a series of posters on sexual assault with phrases like “I felt unsafe around him. So here’s what I did”. These posters lay the responsibility for incidents of rape on survivors, not perpetrators, playing into the sexist, victim-blaming logic that normalises sexual assault in the first place.

In lieu of the data we may find in the AHRC report, survivors’ experiences have shown that the University of Sydney, among others, has systemically failed to adequately address the prevention of and response to incidents of sexual assault. Its bureaucratic gears have a high evidentiary threshold for survivors, and the complaints procedure, in particular, is neither survivor-centric nor trauma-informed.

If survivors do not wish to make a formal complaint, but instead request simple things such as an extension on their work, or moving to a different tutorial so that they do not have to face their abuser in class, they face a punitive special considerations process or receive advice from untrained student services administrators. Recommendations to file a formal complaint with the police or to provide a statutory declaration are common.

When survivors have tried to make a formal complaint to the university, they face a complaints procedure that can take up to six months; a procedure that does not keep them in the loop or let them know of any outcomes; very light disciplinary measures against perpetrators of sexual assault, which rarely result in expulsion; and difficult to access policies, which are scattered throughout different documents.

Ambassador for End Rape on Campus Australia Anna Hush said: “If we want to create university communities where survivors of sexual assault don’t drop out of their studies, or aren’t failed for symptoms they have no control over, we need to be more flexible in our academic responses.”

There are clear economic reasons why universities have dragged their feet on sexual assault in their communities. Because perpetrators are generally more litigious than survivors, universities have a financial incentive to deliver the lightest possible disciplinary action against rapists. Channel 7’s massive Freedom of Information request last year found that, of the 575 reported cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the past five years, only six resulted in expulsions.

Until recently, universities have been particularly cagey about sexual assault, as no institution wants to be the first to take action and risk being branded “the rape university”.

Sexual assault is gendered violence. It is primarily perpetrated by men, against women. LGBTI people are the second biggest group of survivors. The failure to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual assault in universities and the failure to address the needs of survivors of sexual assault, has the effect of preventing women and LGBTI people from accessing a university education.

This institutional failure means people are locked out of opportunities that might, on aggregate, work to close the gender pay gap. Because gender inequality is the root cause of sexual assault, the institutional failure of universities has the effect of further entrenching the economic and social inequality between men, women and non-binary people.

Wom*n’s Officer from the Student Representatives Council Imogen Grant said: “Trauma can be terribly debilitating, and especially so for certain groups. This is the case for queer folk. Since society assumes heterosexuality is the norm, we interpret queer sexual violence as less important. We need to understand that homophobia may worsen mental health problems, contribute to feelings of social exclusion, and increase the threat of physical violence.

“This is also true for people of colour. This is particularly the case at USyd where many students’ first language is Mandarin, however, the reporting system and university resources are only available in English. Despite calls for change, there remain no translation services available for students making a report of sexual assault.

“International students, further, often experience incredibly precarious living and work conditions, which may exacerbate trauma following an assault. It is essential that support services are culturally relevant and serve the needs of diverse groups without exposing them to the risk of social isolation or danger.”

We know that some of the most difficult and confronting times for survivors are when sexual assault stories appear in the media. End Rape on Campus Australia has recommended that before the AHRC report is released, universities adopt impact planning measures, such as providing more counsellors and providing them with specialist trauma training. Indeed, it seems that in preparation for the report the university has already committed to responding with compassion and providing vicarious trauma training to student organizations, which are likely to receive a lot of disclosures during this time.

Given the university’s history with this issue, however, we might be sceptical that sufficient academic, psychological, financial, legal or housing support measures will be put in place to account for the needs of survivors. In lieu of this, the student community must come together to support survivors of sexual assault.

While most of us are not specialists in the area, we can certainly all be there for survivors by believing them, standing with them through this time and standing together in the demand for genuine and comprehensive change.

[Nic Avery is the Co-Education Officer on Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association.] 

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