Report finds universities need to overhaul their sexual assault policies

March 02, 2017
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It's by no means a new issue. Sexual assault, sexual violence and rape on campus has been protested by student activists for decades. But despite the recurrence of this issue appearing again and again in the media, nothing has changed. CEO of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre Chrystina Stanford says that “There are always increased reports of sexual assault around O-Week”, and according to a recent report by End Rape On Campus Australia, university policies aren’t helping to combat this.

Submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the report outlines exactly what it is that needs to change – and a big part is the attitude of universities.

Perpetuating the “stranger danger” myth

Victim blaming is well and truly alive within university sexual assault policies. Instead of educating the perpetrators, university policies tend to speak to the victim about changing their behaviours to prevent sexual assault. The report details some of the appalling messaging from unis, such as the Australian Catholic University which advises students to avoid giving mixed messages and to “be sure that your words do not conflict with other signals such as eye contact, voice tone, posture or gestures”.

The University of Melbourne policy suggested offering to pay half the bill on a date “…so you won’t feel under any obligation to return to the favour”, while the University of Wollongong’s webpage ‘How To Avoid Being Assaulted’ recommends walking with friends and if you're attacked, resist fighting back “…to avoid being seriously injured.”

In the past, responses to sexual assault by universities have included promises to increase lighting around campus or plans to offer self-defence classes. As well as putting the blame on the victim, these responses also perpetuate the myth that sexual assault is more likely to occur from a stranger when you’re walking home alone at night, rather than by someone you know.

Of the 39 Australian universities that were investigated, there were 575 official sexual harassment complaints and only six cases resulted in expulsion.

Sexual assault off campus is the uni’s responsibility

According to the report, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults reported to EROC Australia happened off campus, “…often in a domestic setting such as a share-house or apartment, a friend’s home, their own home, at a house party, lounge rooms, bedrooms, student villages etc.” Despite this, the report found that uni policies are “…often ambiguous as to whether the policy extends to assaults which happen off campus".

The report argues this is the uni’s responsibility because in Australia, such a small percentage of students actually live on campus in university accommodation. Although the sexual assault may have happened at a house party, the victim shouldn’t have to see the perpetrator at uni and in classes every single week. Despite expulsion being the obvious result to a report of sexual assault, a 2016 FOI investigation revealed otherwise. Of the 39 Australian universities that were investigated, there were 575 official sexual harassment complaints and only six cases resulted in expulsion.

What changes are necessary?

The report recommends “Australian universities remove any ‘safety tips’ from their websites that place blame on victims or perpetuate rape myths”. More training is also necessary for staff and student leaders, as the knowledge on how to correctly respond to situations of sexual assault is lacking at many universities.

Alongside educational campaigns, there needs to be an improvement for support and counselling services for victims dealing with trauma from sexual assault. The report notes that “...sexual assault and harassment policies and procedures at Australian universities are generally not survivor-centric” and this needs to change. In response to last year’s University of Sydney controversy, unis also need to be more transparent and disclose reports of sexual assault and harassment instead of trying to salvage their reputation.

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If you're seeking support for a sexual assault incident or need more information, click here to find the right support.

Lauren Piggott

Image: No Red Tape official Facebook page

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