Campus culture: it’s time to fix it


Summer Hill MP, Jo Haylen, writes about the action needed to stamp out sexual assault and harassment at university campuses.

Sexual assault anywhere, anytime and committed by anybody is an unforgivable act. 

The alarming incidence of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses demands action, starting with the culture of ritual humiliation in residential colleges.

University is a formative, if somewhat privileged, time. Those precious years on campus are often a dreamlike in-between, sandwiched between the idealism of high school and the somewhat harsher reality of that first job.

If my own lucky experience is anything to go by, it’s where you learn to expand the horizons of your understanding, where you learn to stretch yourself and search for your talents. Most importantly, you dive headfirst into the wonderful diversity of human life.

That process involves overcoming many preconceptions and fears. It involves opening yourself up to new experiences. It involves trust.

Add alcohol, raucous parties and lots and lots of young people living away from home and the dream can quickly become a nightmare.

The University of Sydney released results of a September 2015 survey showing an alarming 24.7% of students had experienced sexual harassment, assault, unwelcome sexual behaviour, stalking or indeed rape. The National Union of Students’ Let’s Talk About It report puts the national figure at closer to 75% of respondents.

Residential colleges have kept themselves on the front pages of our newspapers, for all the wrong reasons.

We’ve read that female students’ names and supposed sexual relationships are published in a Wesley College journal called Rackweb. Still at Wesley, students were recently forced to apologise after visiting the Kings Court Massage Parlour as part of an initiation prank and threatening to expose the identities of sex workers. UNSW students were caught singing a misogynistic chant that glorified rape. A University of Melbourne Facebook group was exposed – “The Hotties of Melbourne University,” promoting the objectification of women and predatory behaviour on campus.

These problems are not new, but they’re also not going to go away by themselves.  

It’s an open question as to whether these types of behaviour are the responsibility of university administrations alone or boil down to a larger collective blind-spot to sexual assault in our community. Certainly, universities have a responsibility to ensure the safety of students and to provide clear, accessible procedures to report sexual harassment. They also need to investigate those claims in a way that builds trust with the student body.

While it took too long to respond, the University of Sydney is undoubtedly showing leadership by engaging respected former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to work with colleges.  That the university is also strengthening its reporting procedures is also welcome news.

Indeed, understanding the problem in the first place is a welcome step. Australian universities implement the Australian Universities’ Sexual Assault and Harassment Survey, which will provide critical data and feedback on the prevalence of sexual assault. 

There is also a new willingness to talk about the issue, thanks largely to the brave victims and students who refuse to stay silent anymore. The Hunting Ground, a documentary film depicting the extent of the problem in U.S. universities, has screened at campuses across the country.

While arguably universities are beginning to wake up to the problem, our Government seems content to keep their head buried in the sand.

In 2012, a young woman almost died at Sydney Uni’s St John’s College after drinking a deadly concoction of alcohol, shampoo, dog food, Tabasco sauce and rancid milk. The St John’s College Act – gives the NSW Government responsibility for the make-up of the college’s governing council. Following the incident, the College requested the Minister act to clean up the college. But it’s been two years and the College is still waiting.

What kind of message does this send to students?

What’s clear is that to fundamentally alter campus culture if we’re to eliminate sexual assault. It starts with education. We have to talk about consent.

Compulsory consent classes go a long way in dispelling the myths around sexual assault and starting conversations about what consent is. Teaching active consent ensures there is a broad understanding that someone who is silent, incapacitated or not resisting sex is clearly not giving consent, and that consent is an ongoing process, so that saying yes to one thing does not immediately give permission for everything. Consent must be continually sought and given.

California became the first state in the U.S. to define consent along these lines and to force colleges to scrupulously investigate allegations of sexual assault. Last year, they expanded consent training to high schools. Cambridge and Oxford universities in the UK are now enforcing compulsory consent workshops for all College residents.

I moved a motion in NSW Parliament last month calling on the Baird Government to introduce consent training in NSW because we owe it to the young victims, the vast majority of whom are women.

We owe it to those who have bravely spoken out for justice, and we owe it to the young people who will fall victim to the same crimes unless we do something about the problem.

Jihad Dib, Shadow Minister for Education and I wrote to Minister Piccoli asking him to immediately act on the request from St John’s and to also investigate the governance arrangements at residential colleges across NSW.

I’ll keep arguing for consent training, for mandatory reporting at schools, TAFE and university campuses, and for properly funded support for victims. 

University is a place where young people should safely encounter the diversity of people, feelings, ideas and relationships that make up life. That shouldn’t include sexual assault and harassment.



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  • published this page in Home 2016-06-02 22:52:11 +1000