Most young women who finish high school and head off to university, wouldn’t think twice about their safety when stepping onto a university campus. However, a recent, US documentary called The Hunting Ground, has brought to light the shocking issue of sexual assault on American university campuses. The documentary has been widely acclaimed and sparked worldwide discussion about how universities on a global scale handle reports of sexual assault on campus. The film has engaged a passionate Australian following and The Hunting Ground Australia Project, is a local project that has used the film as a tool to engage the entire Australian university sector and the broader community.
Anna Hush, the co-women’s officer at the University of Sydney Student’s Representative culture. She speaks out in the following article about how the University of Sydney has failed to handle sexual assault cases. This article truly speaks to how prevalent this problem is in Australian Universities as well as America.
As the current women’s officer at the University of Sydney, students often come to me with stories of sexual assault or harassment – of being chased around campus after dark, touched by lecturers after class, or assaulted at parties by people they knew and trusted. Often, it is the survivor’s caring and concerned friend who asks me, “What can we do? Who can we report this to?”
Although I feel obliged to tell them that the reporting system exists, I cannot, in good faith, recommend that they take that path, given its major flaws. I can’t refer them to specialist sexual assault counselling on campus, because it doesn’t exist. I can’t tell them that the university will support them and help them through this incredibly difficult time in their life, because … well, I know that it won’t.
The University of Sydney vice chancellor, Michael Spence, received an open letter on Monday written by the women’s officers from the past 10 years. Tuesday marks the launch of a national survey on sexual assault and harassment at universities, developed by Universities Australia in conjunction with the Australian Human Rights Commission. Although research is important to gauge the full extent of this issue, it needs to be followed up by concrete, well-informed action. Unfortunately, this was not the case with the university’s own “Safer Community” survey last year, which made five vague recommendations that have not yet led to any tangible benefits for students.
The problem of sexual assault and harassment on campus isn’t new – it is an ingrained and systemic issue. Wesley College’s Rackweb journal was exposed in March, and just last week an online porn ring targeting girls at Australian high schools was brought to light. These incidents are appalling but they are also unsurprising. Sexual assault and harassment are the predictable outcome of a misogynistic culture, in which women are objectified and degraded.
For decades, students have been trying to push the university into action on these issues, to little avail. Although it’s only one of many, this is my experience.
I’ll start back in March. I set out to organise a screening of The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault at US colleges that has been a major catalyst for change, both in the US and Australia. When I contacted the film organisation, I found out that members of university management had already taken control of the one screening allocated to our campus by The Hunting Ground Australia Project.
With only days to go, the screening wasn’t advertised anywhere – students and staff had no idea that it was to take place. Student representatives sent a letter to university management, asking them to delay the screening until it could be promoted properly. We never received a reply.
The screening went ahead on a sunny April morning. At 10am. When no one is on campus, let alone at the university bar.
When I arrived at the venue, rows of chairs were laid out neatly, the film was cued up on the screen. But no one was there. It was just me, a journalist from the student paper, and a representative from The Hunting Ground Australia Project.
Not even the members of senior management who organised the screening had bothered to show up.
The film played. Brave survivors told their stories, but no one was there to listen. Halfway through the film, I left my seat and went to sob in the bathroom.
This event set the tone for the rest of the year. Empty promises, unanswered emails and business conducted secretively, far away from students and their messy problems. When students are abandoned by the university, student representatives are inevitably left to pick up the slack.
This work is as harrowing as it is fulfilling, but the major roadblock I’ve faced is trying to work with the university to change the way that it handles sexual assault as an institution. Time and again, I’ve realised that this problem exists for the university only to the extent that it is a public relations issue. For the university, this isn’t about student safety – it’s about future enrolments, profits and reputation.
It is crystal clear to student representatives what the problems are, why there is rampant sexual assault on campus, and why, according to the university’s own survey, it will go unreported 99% of the time.
Students need education around consent to know what sexual assault looks like. When rape does occur, students need access to a quality reporting system, with trained specialists to support them through the process. Currently, all that exists is an impersonal and generic web form – it’s no surprise that only 1 in 100 survivors choose to use it to report their experiences to the university.
Spence himself conceded that this is “appalling”. The admission was made on a panel discussion I took part in after a second, student-run screening of The Hunting Ground. This second event was well-attended, and a number of survivors openly challenged Spence about the university’s handling of their cases.
On the panel, I laid out the specific changes that need to take place: timely responses, trained staff, and guaranteed confidentiality. But three months later, nothing has changed. This is why we are now formally demanding these reforms in an open letter.
While these demands remain unmet, the task of supporting survivors falls on community services, underfunded clinics, and student representatives. For me, having to carry around these horrific stories of sexual harassment and assault is made all the worse by the university’s failure to take action. The university knows what changes need to be made, but trying to work with it to implement these changes feels like a Sisyphean task.
That’s why, along with the women’s officers of the past 10 years, I have decided to make these demands heard publicly. Our open letter, published on Tuesday, lists the actions the university must take to tackle sexual assault and harassment. After decades of inaction, the university advises it will have a full response to our letter within a fortnight. The time to act is now.
In the words of the university’s own 2016-2020 strategic plan, “if you change nothing, nothing will change.”
Anna Hush is the current co-women’s officer at the University of Sydney Students Representative Council.
- If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault or domestic violence, support is available at 1800RESPECT.
Source: The Guardian
Author: Anna Hush