More than half of Australian university students say they were sexually harassed on at least one occasion last year, and one in 14 were sexually assaulted at least once in 2015 or 2016, a survey of students at 39 universities has found.
In a global first, the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted the survey and reported on the findings at the universities’ request.
The survey obtained information from more than 30,000 students whose responses showed that a significant proportion of the sexual harassment and sexual assaults they experienced in the past two years occurred in university settings, including on campus and while travelling to or from university.
The report, Change the Course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities, was published on 1 August.
“The information contained in this report paints a disturbing picture of the prevalence rates of these behaviours at Australian universities. Importantly, it also explores how universities have responded to disclosures and reports of incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” says Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, in a foreword to the 320-page report.
“There are three unavoidable conclusions of this report: sexual assault and sexual harassment are far too prevalent in university settings as they are in the broader community; there is significant under-reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment to the university; and universities need to do more to prevent such abuse from occurring in the first place, to build a culture of respect and to respond appropriately by supporting victims of abuse and sanctioning perpetrators,” Jenkins says.
The results are also a reflection of the unacceptably high levels of sexual violence in the broader Australian community, she says. From existing research it is known that young people, especially young women between the ages of 18 and 24, are at an increased risk of experiencing sexual violence.
“The rates of violence experienced by young people are a call to action for Australian universities. Every young person who is contemplating a university education is entitled to expect that they will be able to study in an environment that is safe and promotes their well- being,” Jenkins writes. “Swift and deliberate action with clear accountability is required by universities to improve their response to sexual violence.”
The commission’s data reveal that up to 20% of students at some of the country's top universities claim to have been sexually harassed on campus by other students or by academics and general staff.
The Australian National University, Charles Sturt University and the University of New England or UNE were listed as having the highest rates of sexual assault on campus in the country.
Of the 39 universities surveyed, the UNE ranked top with 4% of its students having been sexually assaulted, while at the other end the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne was 39th with a mere 0.2%.
Other key findings:
- More than a quarter of students surveyed were sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016 while 1.6% reported being sexually assaulted, including while travelling to or from university.
- Women experience sexual assault and sexual harassment at disproportionately higher rates than men: female students were almost twice as likely to be harassed in 2016 and more than three times as likely to have been sexually assaulted over the last two years.
- More than half the students who were sexually assaulted and 45% of those sexually harassed knew the perpetrators.
- 44% of students who identified as bisexual and 38% of students who identified as gay, lesbian or homosexual were sexually harassed in 2016, compared with 23% of students who identified as heterosexual. Trans and gender diverse students were more likely to have been sexually harassed than women and men.
- Domestic students were slightly more likely than international students to have been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016.
- But 97% of those sexually harassed and 87% who endured sexual assaults did not make a formal report or complaint to their university.
“The prevalence and nature of sexual assault and sexual harassment at university largely corresponds with what is already known about the prevalence and nature of sexual violence in the broader Australian community,” the report states. From the age of 15, one in five women and one in 22 men in Australia have experienced sexual violence.
Young women aged between 18 and 24 – the age group of a significant cohort of university students – experience sexual violence at more than twice the national rate, while 18- to 24-year-old women are also more likely than men in this age group to have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Experiences of technology-based harassment were included where some or all of the perpetrators were students, teachers or other people associated with the university.
Lack of university support
The report says students were also unlikely to seek support or advice in relation to their experience of sexual assault or harassment, either from within their university or from external support sources.
“They face a range of barriers, `both structural and attitudinal’, to reporting or seeking support following sexual assault or sexual harassment. In addition, students who did report were often unsatisfied with the response of their university,” it says.
The survey results indicated that only 6% of students thought that their university was currently doing enough to provide and promote clear and accessible information on sexual harassment procedures, policies and support services, and only 4% thought this was the case in relation to sexual assault.
“These results are a cause for concern for a number of reasons. Firstly, the under-reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment makes it difficult for universities to shape appropriate responses,” the report notes.
“Secondly, it suggests that universities do not have clear pathways and policies for reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment, and do not foster an environment where reporting is encouraged.”
The report contains a series of recommendations to assist universities to deal with the challenges of harassment and assault. These include calls for:
- Vice-chancellors to take direct responsibility for the implementation of the recommendations, including decision-making and monitoring, and evaluation of actions taken.
- Universities to develop a plan for addressing the drivers of sexual assault and sexual harassment that provides students and staff with education about behaviours that constitute sexual assault and sexual harassment, consent and respectful relationships, ‘violence supportive attitudes’ and bystander responses.
- Within a year, universities should commission an independent, expert-led review of existing university policies and response pathways in relation to sexual assault and sexual harassment. The review should assess the effectiveness of existing university policies and pathways and make specific recommendations about best practice responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment.
- Residential colleges and university residences should commission an independent, expert-led review of the factors which contribute to sexual assault and sexual harassment in their settings.
National sexual harassment survey of university students
National drive against sexual assault in universities
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