Sexual assault on campus limits access to education

March 22, 2018


Anna Hush is a former Women’s Officer at Sydney University. She has worked with End Rape on Campus Australia, and with journalist and advocate Nina Funnell she co-authored The Red Zone Report, which was released last month. This is an abridged version of a talk she gave at Sydney University at the Women’s Legal Service Feminist Legal Perspectives Seminar on March 7.

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It is crucial to recognise that while there has been increased media attention on this issue over the past few years, sexual harassment and assault is by no means a new issue.

I would speculate that there has been sexual violence within Australian educational communities for as long as they have existed. Indeed, in the recently-released Red Zone Report, we constructed a timeline of media reporting about sexual harassment, assault and hazing at University of Sydney colleges, which dates back to the 1930s. But due to the hard work of feminist campaigners, in the past decades we have created a culture where more people feel empowered to speak out about this issue and about their experiences.

I think this is part of a broader cultural shift towards the recognition of gendered patterns of violence, whether in the home, the workplace, or in places of learning. There is now increased scrutiny of gendered violence, as is evidenced by the recent tidal wave of the #MeToo campaign, which is due to the ongoing and often unrecognised work of grassroots feminist activists.

USyd Women’s Collective

The USyd Women’s Collective, a student-run feminist group, has been active for at least the past 40 years in bringing light to the issue of sexual assault on campus.

In 1977, an 18-year-old student called Annette Morgan was found murdered on the grounds of St Paul’s College, Sydney University. A post-mortem revealed that she had been raped and strangled. Just five days later, four St Paul’s students received the “Animal Act of the Year” award after they allegedly took part in a gang rape. Subsequently, a student forum was held, where women spoke out against the culture of the colleges, in which rape was regarded as “all part of the fun”. Three weeks after these events, the council of St Paul’s still had not taken any action and women students protested outside the college.

The next year, when students from St John’s College advertised their formal as providing “cheap wine and cheap women” the Women’s Collective picketed the event. The same year, the Women’s Collective published a letter in the student newspaper Honi Soit, claiming that reports of sexual assault were “hushed up by university administration”. Later, in 1993, graffiti was found on St Paul’s College and St Andrew’s College reading “enter the halls of misogyny”. It is unknown who put it there.

The primary focus of campaigns led by the Women’s Collective has been to push universities and colleges to acknowledge the culture of sexual violence that exists within their institutions, to implement programs to prevent such violence and to respond effectively and compassionately when it occurs.

It is important to remember that universities are public institutions, funded by taxpayers and overseen by the federal government, no matter how much they increasingly brand themselves and act as corporations. As such, they have a particular obligation to be transparent and accountable to the public. There are also a number of standards that universities have to meet in order to be registered as higher education providers. These standards include having robust procedures for investigating misconduct complaints and making findings. So part of the focus of recent campaigns has been ensuring that universities live up to these legislative standards and are held accountable when they fail to meet them.

Another recent demand from student groups is for universities to implement consent training for students. The University of Sydney’s strategic plan argues that the university should impart the values of “respect and integrity” to all members of its community. Education is, or should be, about more than just rote-learning facts about chemistry, history or literature. Good education teaches us to think critically, to treat others in respectful and ethical ways and to be engaged members of our communities. As places of learning, universities are ideal places to educate people about consent and respect, as well as gender inequality more broadly, and thus to address the drivers of sexual violence at a fundamental level.

Unfortunately, universities have been resistant to implement effective evidence-based consent education. This year, a number of universities, including the University of Sydney, agreed to run an online consent module called “Consent Matters”, which was developed by the British online education company Epigeum. This module has been criticised by students and sexual assault prevention experts for lacking a clear evidence basis and robust evaluation.

Research has shown that one-off programs are not effective in changing attitudes and behaviours about sexual violence. Indeed, they are often cited as an example of what not to do. As Bianca Fileborn, a sexual violence researcher from UNSW, noted: “A whole-of-community approach is a fundamental aspect of effective respectful relationships education. This means the promoted values and behaviours are modelled throughout and integrated into all aspects of community (or university) life. In this sense, a one-off module is far from sufficient in the absence of widespread and systemic changes within a university.”

It’s clear that such systemic change is still yet to come. Nevertheless, in my experience, there has been a tangible shift in community awareness on this issue over the past three years. This is largely driven by sustained media reporting on this issue, by committed journalists like my colleague Nina Funnell, who last year wrote one article a week on university sexual assault, published in mainstream media. This reporting has been accompanied by rightful public outrage at both the high rates of sexual violence in university communities and the ongoing inaction of university administrations to tackle this problem head-on. And in tandem with student activism, public pressure has steadily built to create a problem that universities simply can’t ignore.

AHRC report and university response

This pressure has also led other public bodies to become engaged in the issue. In 2016, the Australian Human Rights Commission announced they would carry out a national survey to gather data on students’ experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

This was not the first time the idea of such a project had been floated. In 2011, then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and her colleague Alex Shehadie recommended that the Group of Eight universities and their residential colleges take the lead in investigating sexual violence in their communities and implementing strategies for change. However, Shehadie told the Sydney Morning Herald this “was met with quite a lot of resistance” from universities and colleges and the project was quietly shelved in 2012. This is just one example of the institutional resistance to scrutiny that creates a serious barrier to change in this space.

Things changed in 2015, when The Hunting Ground Australia Project was launched. This project aimed to use the American documentary The Hunting Ground as a tool for change, by screening it at campuses around the country. The Hunting Ground tells the story of two student-survivors from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who filed the first federal complaint against their university using Title IX legislation, for UNC’s failure to act on sexual assault complaints. They would go on to help other survivors around the country do the same, and eventually founded our sister organisation, the original branch of End Rape on Campus.

When the documentary was aired around Australia, it had a significant impact on public awareness of sexual assault at universities. The Hunting Ground Australia Project also worked with donors to raise $150,000 of seed funding for a national survey of students, to be conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). When it became clear that it would happen with or without them, universities suddenly became keen to join the project, and Universities Australia, the peak body representing university managements, joined the working group.

Survey findings

The survey was carried out in 2016. It was distributed online to a subset of the national student population, and was an opt-in survey. In total, just under 31,000 responses were recorded. The survey asked students about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment during the past two years and gathered data on the location of incidents, the identity of the perpetrator, and the identity of the victim.

  • One in 10 women, and one in 34 men, had experienced sexual assault in 2015 or 2016;
  • In 83% of these cases, the perpetrator was male, and in 57% of cases, the perpetrator was a student from the same university;
  • In almost a quarter of those cases, the incident occurred in a university setting, defined as on-campus or at a university or college social event;
  • Approximately 200 sexual assaults occur within a university setting each week around Australia, or an average of 30 assaults per day;
  • College students were seven times more likely than non-college students to have been sexually assaulted on campus.
  • Students who identified as bisexual, trans or gender diverse, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and students with a disability were also all more likely to experience sexual assault.

Robust data is important, for universities to be able to effectively target prevention and response initiatives. But there were a number of criticisms with the methodology of the AHRC’s project.


The way the survey asked students about sexual assault did not align with best-practice standards for sexual assault surveys. Research shows the best way to capture accurate sexual assault data is to use behavioural questions, such as “has anyone ever engaged in sexual activity with you while you were unconscious or too intoxicated to consent?” rather than simply asking “have you been sexually assaulted”.

Behavioural questions provide a framework for respondents to identify and categorise their experiences. Many survivors tend to downplay their experiences, which is partly due to shame or shock and partly due to cultural stereotypes around sexual assault (that it has to be violent or physically forceful, or that it is usually perpetrated by a stranger lurking in the bushes). However, the AHRC survey simply asked: “Have you experienced … any incident of sexual assault?”.

The survey also classified a number of behaviours that legally constitute sexual assault in their category of sexual harassment. For these reasons, these figures are actually likely to underestimate the incidence of sexual assault in university settings.

Despite its methodological shortcomings, these findings are sobering. It is clear that sexual assault is happening at unacceptable rates within educational communities. In part, this is due to the age demographics of university students — young women are overall more likely than any other group to experience sexual assault.

However, it is also due to a culture in our universities where sexual assault is not taken seriously. When universities fail to acknowledge or proactively address sexual violence, it sends a message to survivors that their institutions are unwilling to support them — and it sends a message to perpetrators that they can get away with sexual assault with impunity.

The survey found that 87% of students who had experienced sexual assault did not make a formal complaint to their university. A clear majority of those who did report were either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the support they received from the university.

Frequently, survivors are told that sexual assault is a police matter and they should just go to the police — even when all they are seeking is to attend class without having to face their perpetrator. Students making complaints are sometimes told by their university not to talk to anyone about what happened, isolating them from other support networks such as friends and family. Misconduct complaints often take a long time to resolve — in some cases up to a year. All of these factors act to disincentivise students from reporting their experiences and can be highly damaging to those who do engage in the reporting process.

Research has consistently shown that the attitude a survivor faces when they first disclose their experience of sexual assault is the biggest factor determining their recovery pathway. When universities question, shame or silence survivors, they retraumatise them. This is often referred to as ‘the second assault’ — and many survivors describe this institutional betrayal as equally bad, or even worse, than their original assault.

Universities’ response

In broad terms, the changes we’ve seen since the release of the report are changes to make universities’ reporting systems more accessible to students; the implementation of consent education; training for staff in responding to disclosures of sexual assault and harassment; and increasing the capacity of counselling services.

While these are all important changes, they must be supported and underpinned by a broader cultural shift in how university communities respond to sexual violence. For example, improved reporting systems are only useful if more students are coming forward to use them, and this will only occur if they genuinely feel safe to disclose to their university and feel it is likely they will benefit from the reporting process.

How then as communities can we drive this cultural change, which is often much more difficult to measure and much less tangible? Policy-driven approaches can only go so far in addressing sexual violence and they must be complemented by more systemic changes in our attitudes about gender and sexuality and the credibility of survivors of sexual violence. Historically, this kind of change has always been a grassroots process, driven by the work of feminist activists and advocates.

Broderick review

I co-authored The Red Zone Report with journalist Nina Funnell, and with the assistance of the director of End Rape on Campus Australia, Sharna Bremner. The report delves into the culture at residential colleges around the country and the history of hazing, sexual assault and sexual harassment at these institutions, with a particular focus on the University of Sydney colleges. We decided to write The Red Zone in the wake of the review conducted by Elizabeth Broderick, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

The Broderick taskforce was announced in the midst of a number of scandals at the Sydney University colleges that hit the media in early 2016. The Vice Chancellor announced that Broderick would conduct an independent investigation into college culture. Altogether, the review cost more than $1 million, funded by the colleges and the university.

Broderick carried out focus groups with college students to gather information about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. However, as End Rape on Campus Australia has noted, focus groups provide a less-than-ideal setting for college students to speak out about the negative aspects of college culture. The “code of silence” prevailing in colleges creates pressure for students to defend their institutions, which are, after all, their home and their community, and college students who do speak out face significant backlash.

The final report produced by the Broderick team was widely criticised by student groups as “watered-down” and “whitewashed”. It painted a very rosy picture of college life.

Like the AHRC’s survey, the Broderick review did not use behavioural questions in asking students about their experiences of sexual assault, so it is similarly likely to underestimate the prevalence of sexual assault within the colleges. The report lacks analysis of class, privilege, wealth and entitlement, and has only soft analysis of homophobia and racism. It fails to acknowledge any of the events that precipitated the initiation of the taskforce, such as the Wesley College Rackweb scandal, and a number of other disturbing stories of college hazing published in 2016 and earlier. Students accused the colleges of having undue influence in the methodology of the taskforce and the tone of the report, and indeed Broderick has confirmed that the study’s methodology and approach was partly driven by the colleges.

The Red Zone Report

End Rape on Campus Australia sought to address these gaps and provide a fuller picture of college culture in our report, The Red Zone Report. In this report, we drew together information from various sources, including media reporting, freedom of information requests, police records and academic research, as well as our own experience working with college students who have experienced sexual assault, harassment and hazing.

The report was written with no funding, and no institutional affiliation. The final 200-page report paints a fairly disturbing picture of college culture. Overall, we found that hazing rituals are ubiquitous and entrenched at colleges around the country. Some of these rituals include:

  • Men at colleges ejaculating into women’s bottles of shampoo, body wash and conditioner, so that women students wash their hair, face or body with a mixture of the product and semen;
  • Male students drinking live goldfish out of bowls on the tables at formal events;
  • An annual event at St John’s College called “the purge” where students are encouraged to post embarrassing and graphic details and photos online about other students’ sexual activities;
  • First-year students at St John’s College being locked in the bathrooms in the dark and having dead fish thrown at them;
  • Predatory attitudes particularly towards first-year women students who are targeted in institutionalised event such as “the bait cruise”, “fresher five” and “the bone room”.

We sought to analyse the roots of this culture, and understand why it is so entrenched and pervasive. We argue that colleges are, both historically and presently, masculine and elitist spaces, with a high degree of conformity to traditional gender norms. They are environments where there is significant pressure to take part in such rituals as an initiation into college life and those who refuse to do so are punished and isolated from the college community. First-year students who are humiliated and degraded go on to perpetrate the same behaviours when they become senior students. And, after they graduate and take up positions of power in law, politics, or the media, alumni return to govern the colleges.

This structure creates insular communities, shielded from external scrutiny by the immense amount of power consolidated in college social networks, or the “old boys” system. This makes college culture immensely difficult to shift, as these are communities that value tradition over change; and the traditions present in the colleges are part of the very fabric of college life.

The Red Zone Report received significant media attention and sparked an outcry from student organisations, many of whom demanded that the colleges be shut down altogether. We are yet to see the colleges’ response to the report, but Tanya Plibersek said that if elected, the federal Labor party would crack down on the colleges and potentially fine them if they fail to clean up these cultures of violence.

One of the major recommendations in the Red Zone Report was for the Acts of state parliament on which the colleges are founded to be reviewed or repealed. These Acts give college councils significant autonomy to govern the colleges and play a large role in entrenching the power of alumni networks. State and federal governments have a significant role to play in reframing the role of colleges within the higher education sector.

Going forward

I am really heartened by the shifts that have occurred over the past few years, both on and off campus, towards the recognition of gendered violence as a pervasive and systemic issue. The #MeToo campaign showed just how ubiquitous sexual harassment and sexual assault is, and I think the voices of students and survivors in university communities have had a similar effect, highlighting how common sexual violence is within our communities and how often it is hushed up or simply ignored by those in power.

But, much like the women who spoke out against well-known figures in the entertainment industry, survivors and their advocates at universities come up against extremely powerful institutions. Universities are increasingly concerned with protecting their profits and thus their reputations above all else, and continue to treat this issue largely as a public relations problem, rather than a genuine problem of student safety.

We need to remain vigilant and critical of universities’ responses to sexual violence, and ensure that genuine cultural change is occurring, rather than just window dressing or brand management. Student organisations, as well as state and federal bodies, will play a crucial role in holding universities accountable for the commitments they make on paper.

Fundamentally, sexual violence in university communities is a problem of access to education. I strongly believe that all people should be able to access an education free from rape and violence, and that our tertiary education system should be fair, equitable and free from discrimination and harassment. This is something students have been fighting for for many decades and their voices are only growing stronger. The time is well and truly up for cultures of misogyny within higher educational communities.

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