The ANU policy library is a labyrinth. Apart from the slight convenience of being listed in alphabetical order, it’s a mystifying list of policy and procedure ranging from Admissions to Cabcharge guidelines to Workplace Inspections. And sexual assault is nowhere on the list.
Today, most students turn to the internet as their first source of information. For information on how our university looks after us, its website is logically the first port of call.
But ANU’s sexual assault policy is incredibly difficult to find, where it exists online at all. The first result of a ‘sexual assault policy’ or ‘sexual harassment policy’ search on the ANU’s website redirects to the policy library. The only direct result for sexual harassment is ‘Staff grievance resolution’, though if you look hard enough there is a procedure for presenting discrimination, harassment and bullying. The sexual assault policy even harder to find: a search returns no results. Instead, ‘sexual assault’ is located as a subsection of the ‘student critical incident’ policy. Here, sexual assault is merely mentioned in a list of other serious and traumatic incidences, and offers no information as to what to expect from the University should a survivor choose to disclose.
For a survivor, or their supporters, this is frightening. Stories about university mismanagement of a disclosure are far from uncommon. How is someone meant take a step into that process, when they’re given no idea of what to expect from it?
Providing clear and visible information on sexual assault and harassment does not just hold universities accountable to fair and transparent policies: it can improve rates of reporting, and play a key role in changing negative cultures and misconceptions of sexual assault.
A website with good information addresses the context of sexual assault in universities. It disproves rape myths and tells a survivor that their experience is always serious enough. It outlines a procedurally fair disclosure and discipline process. And it demands that we do better.
To its credit, the ANU Website does tick some of the boxes. Its current subpage ‘Finding help and support if you have been sexually assaulted,’ explains what sexual assault is, and what the rights of the survivor are. It provides links to internal and external support services. There’s also a link to a companion subpage, ‘Supporting someone who has been sexually assaulted.’ The resources that both of these pages’ link to are ones that university staff and residential leaders are trained to be aware of, and they’re crucial starting points of information for someone trying to process an assault.
But, 93 per cent of students who were subject to harassment did not seek ANU’s support or assistance. As a potential platform for change, the website isn’t doing enough. Students in need of help aren’t going to scroll through policy documents, read occupancy agreements or otherwise spend hours searching for concrete information. They need that information at their fingertips.
A university must not only respond effectively and appropriately to sexual assault and harassment when they occur, it must work to prevent them from occurring. While certainly not the solution, ensuring that its policy is clear and understandable would be a step for the ANU toward helping its students understand what sexual assault is, what their rights are, and how they can hold their University accountable for any response.
The ANU has its policies: a response to a disclosure doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Make them visible, and be accountable to them – and we might feel like we have a chance of being looked after.