Students and sexual assault survivors have been left reeling after news that the Australian Human Rights Commission’s much-lauded survey on the prevalence of sexual assault at Australian universities will not hold binding recommendations, and that universities may choose not to publicly release institutional data. As the story plays out in the media, university students are left wondering how this survey will bring about any meaningful change within their communities. The truth is that the project has been troubled from the beginning, and the missteps being brought to light speak to a fundamental lack of trust between Australian university administrations and survivors of sexual violence. But the work of student activists and advocates provides a path forward.
In September last year I was invited, in my capacity as a student leader, to a meeting with Gillian Triggs and her team to discuss the AHRC survey, so they could answer questions in person and hear from the people working ‘on the ground’. The room was filled with powerful, passionate women, many of whom I had gotten to know as they worked on campus to support survivors and agitate for change – we were excited to hear from a veteran of human rights advocacy. To my surprise, however, Gillian Triggs opened the meeting with a speech acknowledging the ‘bravery’ of vice-chancellors in asking the AHRC to conduct this survey. I thought about my friend Ally*, who was finishing her first year of university after being sexually assaulted by a classmate six months before. Different definitions of bravery, perhaps.
Data on sexual assault prevalence is extremely useful. Data can help us determine strategic priorities, highlight gaps in service delivery, and advise where funding is best allocated. But we do not need this survey to tell us that there is a problem with sexual assault on campus. Data from the most recent ABS Personal Safety Survey indicates that women in the age bracket of 18-24 experience sexual assault twice as much as other women (based on whether they reported experiencing sexual assault in the 12 months prior to the survey). Outside of the ample prevalence data compiled, analysed and disseminated by organisations like Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), there is also shocking, and shockingly common, media coverage of campus sexual assaults. In the past four months, two stories about different universities’ staff members assaulting students – and keeping their employment – have made headlines, while a University of Canberra lecturer was found guilty of raping and indecently assaulting students just this week.
The body of evidence we already have is compelling, but for universities to know that sexual assault is a problem, and understand how to fix it, they need only to listen to their own students. Last year, ten former Wom*n’s Officers from the University of Sydney co-signed a statement that draws attention to the ‘entire decade we have been raising the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus with the administration.’ In the same letter, they noted, ‘For an entire decade we have been met with resistance to change.’
The lack of action on the part of university administrations’ can’t simply be explained by a lack of data. Holly Zhang, the current ANU Women’s Officer, has said that action has been stalled because of there is a ‘fundamental lack of trust between universities and survivors.’ Survivors, Zhang says, ‘have been alienated by past mishandling and discouraged from reporting by confusing, inadequate policies.’ She goes on to say that survivors do not believe that ANU as an institution cares about their wellbeing or acts in their best interests. Her impression is that the university, in turn, doesn’t understand why survivors won’t reach out to them.
When survivors do in fact reach out to university administration, the response to sexual assault is overwhelmingly reactive and defensive. Survivors who talk about their assault – myself included – are treated as troublemakers or potential litigants, as the university focuses exclusively on the damage an accusation of sexual violence can do … to the university.
Change won’t come from the release of the AHRC survey results – it will only confirm what many of us have already known for a long time. The good news is that change is already underway. Past Women’s Officers from the ANU have been working with the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre to develop a long-term plan for the university that adapts policy to prioritise survivors’ experiences, and commits more resources towards sexual assault response.
The student and alumni group Restorative ANU are working closely with this year’s Women’s Officer and the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre in the development of this plan. Our organisation is guided by three values: that responses to violence should be victim-centred, empathetic and holistic. The first two values focus on the need to treat survivors as people. The last value emphasises that violence at our university is not an isolated act between two people – in a community as close-knit as ours, the impacts of violence reverberate outwards. Communities can be complicit in violent acts, but just as often an entire community can be harmed by violence against just one person. We decide which community we would like to be – we don’t need a survey to tell us that.
* Name has been changed.
Codie Bell recently graduated from ANU, is a sexual assault survivor and advocate, and one of the leaders of Restorative ANU. They can be found on Facebook as fb.me/RestorativeANU and can be reached at RestorativeANU@gmail.com.
If you feel affected by this article there is support for you. You can call 1800RESPECT for 24/7 trauma counselling, support and advice. The Canberra Rape Crisis Centre can be phoned on 6247 2525, 7am-11pm, seven days a week.