Reading the Stats: A Response to Professor Baker

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) Professor Richard Baker in his recent Op-Ed for Woroni wrote: “While there is some evidence that the rate of incidents [of unwanted sexual attention] on campus may be lower than that in the broader community, there remains more we can do to improve the situation on our campus.” To mischaracterise the issue of sexual assault on campus by suggesting that the ANU is any safer than the broader community is at best misguided and at worst irresponsible. Either way, in order to “improve the situation”, such an understanding can only be counter- productive.

Professor Baker found his statistics on the AFP “Crime Statistics” website, which provides numbers of assaults reported in different areas in Canberra. In comparing the number of reported assaults or unwanted sexual behaviour on ANU campus (9) to the number reported in Canberra at large (299) and interpreting them as a percentage of population, he came to his conclusion. However, it is well known that reporting rates of sexual crimes are abysmally low. Sexual assault is less likely to be reported than any other form of violence, with only about 19% of incidents of sexual assault reported to the police (NSW Rape Crisis Centre). And yet, the most recent statistics relating specifically to university campuses suggest that the reporting rate on Australian campuses is around the 3% mark, with 3% of incidents reported to universities and 2 thirds of these to police (2011 NUS “Talk About It” survey). That means that while only 1 in 5 incidents is reported in the general community, only 1 in 33 is reported in universities.

Reconsidering the numbers with these statistics in mind, Professor Baker’s assertion becomes questionable. Additionally, with a population of approximately 25,000 staff and students, and with a large minority of them living on campus, the ANU community would be naïve to accept a figure of 9 incidents of sexual assault last year. Rather than illustrating some sort of student utopia, this tiny number is in fact an indication that ANU students face, or believe they face, enormous barriers to reporting incidents. At ANU, and particularly at residential Halls and Colleges where off enders and their victims often have to continue living together, going to class together and interacting with each other, I’m not surprised. Even less so when we consider the recent mismanagement of allegations at ANU, the often imperfect consequences of reporting incidents (one of Baker’s 9 ended up leaving their Hall while the alleged perpetrator stayed), and the frustrating statistic that, of the 19% of incidents reported, only 1.6% conclude with convictions.

Why is it important to get so hung up on these statistics, particularly when they are arguably outdated and inaccurate? Because the biggest barrier to reporting unwanted sexual attention is the victim’s perception of the incident, which is strongly infl uenced by their community’s perception of “victims” and “perpetrators”. In suggesting that we are in a better situation than our wider community we risk not only developing a false conception of actual rates of sexual assault and harassment on campus, but also and more importantly, we risk failing to combat the shame, stigma and uncertainty leading to extreme under-reporting.

The only way to have a full and accurate understanding of rates of assault and harassment on campus is to undertake a survey of staff and students. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, in her 2011 review into the treatment of women at ADFA, recommended a national survey of sexual assaults on Australian university campuses, and the ANU was admirably the only Group of Eight institution to commit to undertaking the survey. Unfortunately, if there were ever plans to follow through, they have apparently been quietly abandoned.

I commend Professor Baker and groups on campus, particularly the Women’s Department, for their commitment to this issue. I am proud of the fact that ANU has required its leadership teams at Halls and Colleges to undertake training in some capacity since at least 2011. Having been to the National Association of Australian University Colleges Conference, I also have no doubt that we are years ahead of some of our interstate counterparts.

However, we cannot hope to achieve any sort of progress unless we accurately characterise the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus and celebrate ourselves for actual achievements rather than fictional ones.

Simone Proctor was the 2013 President of Burgmann College