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Time to protect vulnerable university students



This week, the Australian Human Rights Commission released Change the Course. It is a landmark report into sexual assault and harassment at universities. The undertaking was propelled by survivors, student leaders and support organisations.

Malcolm TurnbullIt should mark the beginning of making campuses and university-affiliated venues safer for all young people. The onus has ever been on those with power to make it so. The results of the national survey, across 39 universities, make for grim reading. More than one in 20 students (6.9 per cent) were sexually assaulted at least once in 2015 or 2016. Women are four times as likely as men to have been assaulted in a residential college. Queer students are more likely to be sexually harassed than those who identify as straight. Trans or gender-diverse students are also more likely to be sexually harassed than women and men.

Beyond the numbers, we must imagine the psychological and physical impact on thousands of young people who are making their way in the world. Sexual assault and harassment should not be normalised or minimised as part of the university experience, as they aren't (or shouldn't be) in other settings like sports, church or work.

It is not a sordid rite of passage, a shadow cost of higher learning. As ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt reminds us: 'Each statistic is a person. A colleague, a classmate, a friend.' Universities owe a duty of care. The relevant Ignatian term is cura personalis, care for the entire person.

Yet such incidents are severely underreported, in part because students feel disempowered. Only 4 per cent of respondents think that their university is doing enough to provide information and support regarding sexual assault, and 6 per cent think so in relation to sexual harassment.

In brief, sexual violence at universities corresponds not only with the sexual violence that occurs in broader society, but the systemic failures and cultural permissions that make it prevalent.

The Human Rights Commission correctly frames remedies in structural terms: lines of accountability; awareness and training programs; developing and auditing processes for responding to incidents (including counselling services and proper documentation); independent and regular tracking of university policies. It says something about the utter depth of inadequacy thus far—that all this amounts to a mere baseline.

Structures can of course be mended. Practices can be enforced. But the greater challenge, as always, is cultural. That is what makes change meaningful and therefore permanent.


"It is not a sordid rite of passage, a shadow cost of higher learning."


The initial response from Universities Australia has concerned advocates, given that it does not propose measures to deal with perpetrators. As Nina Funnell and Anna Hush, ambassadors for End Rape on Campus Australia, point out: 'As long as perpetrators of sexual violence are allowed to commit these acts with impunity, universities send a clear message that this behaviour is normal and excusable—a far cry from the zero-tolerance approach they claim to have in their press statements.'

They cite an investigation into 575 official complaints of sexual misconduct at universities (145 relating to assault) of which only six resulted in expulsion.

A slight echo rings here from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, as well as the current tensions over the doctrine of headship in church settings. It is one thing to recognise that victims ought to have been believed, supported and protected, but this must be consistent with how perpetrators are treated. There is no healing without justice.

Lest it escape notice, a portion of the complaints lodged at universities involve crime. It ought to neutralise the gamut of responses like blaming or shaming victims, or attributing violence to alcohol. There are absolutely no conditions that make sexual harassment or sexual assault OK. For some reason, that is not an obvious thing to say.

It is also important to emphasise that an overwhelming number of such incidents at university settings are perpetrated by men (71 per cent for sexual harassment, 83 per cent for sexual assault). This mirrors the rates of sexual violence, and violence in general, that happens in broader society.

We cannot elide the truth that Australia has a masculinity problem, or at least with the properties held to be masculine: physical supremacy, sexual prowess, entitlement and power. 'Boys will be boys'. Anyone with passing familiarity with other cultures of masculinity would know these traits as limiting and problematic.

It may even be the case that a persistent taxonomy of gender—in which men dominate—drives violence in our society. Violence against women, queer and trans-people. Colonial, white supremacist, and Islamist violence. Violence against children.

In this regard, the work that universities must do to ensure the safety of students is only a segment of the hard conversations and even harder work that must be carried out in all areas of Australian life.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, universities, sexual assault



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Existing comments

Benita Arndt did a wonderful job smashing the ridiculous results which came out of this survey where respondents were self-selecting, staring was included as sexual harassment in 20% of cases, events occurring on public transport were included etc etc etc. It is fake surveys like this that are jumped on by people with agendas while the rest of us tune out, which is sad as I am sure there are genuine sectors of society where this is a true problem whereas university students now taking up all the oxygen.

Paul | 04 August 2017  

Please note: of the 6.9% of university students who (as Fatima reports) were sexually assaulted in 2015/2016,(only!) 1.6% say they were assaulted at the university. Which suggests that sexual assault is as much a community problem as it is a specifically university problem. But it certainly is a very serious problem both for universities and for the community generally

Bill Uren | 04 August 2017  

A very small minority of males in reality have a masculinity problem. If 6 percent of young women have experienced some form of sexual violence it is most likely that the men involve are repeat offenders .. perhaps representing 2-3 percent of all them. It seems very unfair to label all Australian males as problematic however disgraceful the acts of the very few.

Eugene | 04 August 2017  

If you as a parent are seriously derelict if you don’t warn your daughter and son to behave and beware, society as a multiplicity of parents is seriously derelict if it fails to do the same thing. It’s not just behave for boys and beware for girls, but behave, too, for girls and, as modern experience is showing, beware, too, for boys. None of this should be surprising except to parents and children who have lost the proclivity to word their experience through the textual formulas of the Scriptures. Jesus told the disciples leaving his tutelage for the unknowns of the mission field to behave as gently as lambs and to beware as wisely as serpents. Why shouldn’t boys and girls leaving the tutelage of their parents for the unknowns of university residential college do the same? Inasmuch that the disciples remained under the protection of the Holy Spirit despite physical distance from Christ, why shouldn’t the wardens of university residential colleges, especially ones bearing a name that indicates a religious affiliation, be held in loco parentis to those boys and girls with appropriate powers of discipline?

Roy Chen Yee | 05 August 2017  

Good point Eugene. This suggests that MOST men are decent and respectful. There's something to celebrate. Yes, we do need to 'protect vulnerable university students' but what from exactly?

Stephen de Weger | 07 August 2017  

Sorry, this is not to excuse for a nano-second any expression of true sexual harassment and especially assault/abuse...hopefully that goes without saying. I just think that it needs to be seen as a human issue, not necessarily as a gender one - making it a gender issue nly causes division (between the genders and gender theorists/anti-theorist) whereas making this a human issue means that all are capable of aberrant and destructive sexual behaviour. But yes, men, being somewhat more externally sexually driven, do need to keep themselves in check more. Or am I wrong there...I did just hear someone on was it Q&A or The Drum saying that it is a complete fallacy that men have more sex drive than women. Oh well, then I suppose it does mean this shouldn't be a gendered issue after all. Very confusing!!!!

Stephen de Weger | 07 August 2017  

"It is also important to emphasise that an overwhelming number of such incidents at university settings are perpetrated by men (71 per cent for sexual harassment, 83 per cent for sexual assault). This mirrors the rates of sexual violence, and violence in general, that happens in broader society". Fatima, this is true and I agree that men need to be held accountable for their actions, but it is these men, (and those who encourage it or just standby). Yes, 71% and 83% might be the correct figures for male perpetrated actual assaults. My problem is that so many people then read this to be that a huge majority of men are abusers/harasser in waiting. Hence the previous comment - 94% of males do not abuse, harass, assault. However, such fear, in the same way that fear of paedophiliac priests has resulted in the suspicion of all priests, generates a big problem with young people getting together and negotiating relationships. Many are just giving up and becoming MGTOWs, an unfortunate result of all this gendered protectionist theory, where one of the sayings is "The only winning move is not to play". How sad. Having sons myself, I see what they and 94% of their generation are having to work through. But no, there should never be one incident of sexual abuse/assault/harassment by anyone.

Stephen de Weger | 07 August 2017  

time for another look at Ms. H.Garner's The First Stone anyone?

jill | 07 August 2017  

After a little more reflection on the topic....This is more about power abuse and who has power. At the moment, it does seem that men have more power over women when it comes to sex (or so gender theory believes). If one can perceive the possibility that the tides could turn and women have power over men, (and this of course, can and does happen - but its about numbers) then this makes it clearer that this is not so much a gender issue as a power and disrespect issue. It is the general abuse of power, something we all have in different contexts, that needs to be addressed. It is also about the complete lack of respect for another human being, men for women, yes, but men for men, too, women for women, too, and women for men, too, not to mention belief for belief, and sexuality for sexuality, as well. If new programs to deal with campus sexual harassment/assault, emphasise this, rather than allowing the issue to become a 'rape by males crisis' I believe that would be far more effective. We could ALL use such reminding that we need to not abuse our power and to treat all with respect.

Stephen de Weger | 08 August 2017  

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