In mid-last year The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released a landmark report detailing the overwhelming prevalence of campus sexual assaults across the Australian tertiary education sector.
The AHRC surveyed 30,930 students from 39 leading Australian universities and found the following:
The extensive report also recommended that Australian universities establish survivor-centric support systems and specialist sexual assault services for victims. For many of the universities featured in the report however, this is yet to be actioned.
This lack of movement and overall institutional failure has meant that grassroots organisations must work twice as hard to protect students and keep universities accountable in the wake of a sexual assault crisis.
One grassroots organisation that can attest to this is Sydney University’s Women’s Collective (WOCO), an inclusive activist space dedicated to intersectional feminism.
The QUO recently caught up with USYD WOCO representatives, Katie Thornburn and Imogen Grant, to find out more about the prevalence of campus assault and the work they do to combat it.
The Prevalence Of Campus Assault
Katie told The QUO that once every three weeks a survivor will come forward and disclose their assault to the USYD Women’s Collective. “That's not covering every person that's ever been assaulted because not everyone knows or would contact us.”
According to Katie and Imogen, at a university level, a culture of rape and misogyny is able to flourish because university management does not take a harsh enough stance against sexual assault. The two WOCO representatives stated that once a report is filed to university management, there is often an attempt to cover up and minimise these allegations.
In Katie’s words, “universities are more concerned about being sued by a perpetrator than they are with actually supporting a survivor who has come forward.”
Source: Tim Gouw.
Complex Reporting Systems And Inadequate Resources
The two WOCO representatives told The QUO that universities often incentivise a lack of reporting when it comes to sexual assault. They do this by ensuring that university sexual assault policy is difficult find and interpret.
According to Katie, “reporting mechanisms are really difficult to find if they do exist and that's another way that the universities keep the reports down.”
Imogen stated, “sexual assault policy is really difficult to locate particularly for a person in trauma, so they're often located in different policies, they use very legalistic language, they’re confusing and policies are out of date.”
Katie and Imogen also believe universities do not provide adequate or appropriate resources for sexual assault survivors.
“We need things that are specific” says Katie, “So there's generalised mental health facilities on campus but they help things like perfectionism and procrastination, not sexual assault trauma. There needs to be a sexual assault specific trauma centre or a trauma-informed counsellor that those cases are referred to.”
According to Imogen, some survivors may as a result receive improper treatment.
“Often this can be particularly damaging because it requires a survivor to overcome a lot of inhibitions in order to access counselling support. So when they're first accessing counselling in a university setting and the experience is a negative one because the staff member isn't trained, often as a result the student may never disclose their assault another person and may never seek help again in the future.
“Also there should be an education program dealing with consent and sexual ethics” says Katie, “so far we've got a non-compulsory online module which, one it's not compulsory and, two it's not the best practice, you can easily skip through it, it's not engaging and we just don't know if it's an effective mechanism.” She says.
Source: Ben Blennerhassett.
Imogen told The QUO, “In the lead up to the AHRC report, there were certainly attempts made to train staff and train student representatives. Now however, there's really been a complete lack of action after the report.”
The two WOCO representatives believe this is because the media has dried up and there are currently no camera crews on the university campus forcing action. “Now they think they can get away with it.” Says Katie, “I think they were building up to the report and then now once the report is done they just assume that no one's watching.”
The University’s Reputation
Tertiary education is Australia’s third largest export and for almost all universities, having a pristine reputation is central to their impression on international markets.
“There's a real like internal incentivisation amongst universities in order to officially make sure that their reputations are as clean as possible.” Says Imogen, “And this is particularly true amongst the top universities whereby their reputation is critical to their pull from the global market.”
Katie agrees, “It's always about the university's reputation, so if they're able to keep the numbers of assault reports artificially low they then think ‘okay that makes us look good because we're not the rape campus.’ Nobody wants to be known as the rape campus.”
“So in order to make sure that universities can wipe their hands clean from the issue of sexual assault they conceptualise the issue primarily as a private concern, like a women's responsibility or a matter for the police.” Says Imogen, “They tend to treat issues as sort of random and disconnected rather than the product of a society that has persistent gender inequality.”
Source: Mihai Surdu.
The USYD WOCO is an activist group on campus advocating for the best interests of women and non-binary students. Their work revolves around protests, counter-protests, fundraising, reading groups and film screenings.
USYD’s WOCO are pushing for trauma-informed, survivor-centric mechanisms and policies that support survivors while they're still trying to study. As well as this, WOCO are trying to establish preventative measures including consent education on campus.
“We keep the bastards honest.” Says Katie “What we do is hold the university to account, we’re there agitating and advocating for these mechanisms to happen and if it weren’t for the Women's Collective producing media-juicy things like protests then the university wouldn't have their reputation in line.
“The university you know cares about their reputation, so if we do things that highlight that their reputation isn’t as good as it seems then they actually act on things.”
Pictured: WOCO members protest against sexual assault on campus. Source: University of Sydney Women's Collective Facebook Page.
According to Imogen, Grassroots organisations like the Women's Collective are critical in mobilising the student body and the wider community against institutionalised sexism.
“We're the ones that achieve results at the end of the day, so I think that it's direct action and it's protests that really affect change and we've finally reached an apex in the campaign whereby universities must grasp the issue of sexual assault with all of the seriousness that it deserves.”