One in six students sexually harassed while at university

Almost half of Australia’s student population have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime.

One in six students has been sexually harassed since starting at university and one in 12 has been sexually harassed in the past 12 months; and one in 20 students has been sexually assaulted since starting at university and 1.1% have been sexually assaulted in the past 12 months.

These are the findings of a new survey released on 23 March, one of the world’s largest surveys on sexual harassment and sexual assault experienced by university students.

The Social Research Centre’s 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) found that women are far more likely to be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted than men.

Also, it found sexuality and gender diverse students are at significantly greater risk than all other groups of being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people living with disabilities and people from culturally diverse backgrounds are also student cohorts at greater risk of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Pansexual students were more than three times as likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months as heterosexual students.

Disabled students were nearly twice as likely to have such experiences compared to non-disabled students.

The majority of perpetrators are male. One in 20 perpetrators were university staff members.

At the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra 26.1% of survey respondents reported being sexually harassed at some point during their time at university, twice the national average.

Of ANU respondents, 12.3% reported having been sexually assaulted at some point during their time at university, three times the national average.

‘Unacceptable’ situation

Speaking at the release of the findings, the chair of Universities Australia, Professor John Dewar, apologised on behalf of the body’s 39 institutional members to “every student who has suffered sexual harassment or sexual assault or has a friend, family member or loved one who has”.

He said the situation is unacceptable.

“I am sorry for what you endured. I am sorry for how that may have affected your relationships, your mental health, your studies and your life,” he said.

“Every person has the right to be and feel safe so that they can learn, work, live and thrive. Every person who attends university has the right to believe they will be treated with respect, dignity and fairness.”

He said no instance of sexual harassment or sexual assault should be tolerated, and our institutions must set the tone for what is expected from our future graduates.

“To achieve this, we need to continue in our efforts on prevention as well as providing support, compassion and fairness to all victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault in our institutions.”

In a statement, ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt said: “Today’s results are difficult for our community and my thoughts are with victim-survivors, their loved ones and the dedicated professionals and advocates who work so hard to support them.

“But while these results are confronting, they are the only way we can understand the scale of the challenge we continue to face and how we can best target our action to keep our community safe.”

He said the institution is already working on solutions, including investing AUS$3.3 million (US$2.5 million) a year in a Student Safety and Wellbeing Plan and making consent training mandatory for all students within two years.

“ANU is listening and acting, and we are making major new investments to stop and respond to these unacceptable behaviours.”

Nearly 2,000 personal stories

Universities Australia surveyed more than 43,000 individuals, and included in the NSSS report the personal stories of 1,835. It produced a quantitative report and a qualitative report.

Students reported a range of incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault in a university context, which involved catcalling, receiving sexualised comments or sexist commentary, being inappropriately touched, groped, ‘up-skirted’, stalked, kissed without permission, and being sexually assaulted.

Sexual assaults involved instances where victim/survivors did not consent to the sexual activity, withdrew consent during the sexual activity and the perpetrator continued, or were too intoxicated to consent.

“Perpetrators were typically known to victim/survivors and were often fellow students, with lecturers and other university staff also being flagged as perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” the qualitative report said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many university institutions to shift to remote learning, students noted an increase in sexual harassment online. Student accommodation or residences were also commonly mentioned as locations of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Many students reported witnessing acts of sexual harassment and-or sexual assault while at university, or of knowing a close friend or colleague who had experienced it while at university.

“These experiences had then gone on to affect the witnesses’ understanding of safety at university and informed how they navigate their university’s physical and online spaces,” the report said.

The report was damning about the response of higher education institutions, noting that the majority of victim/survivors had negative experiences when reporting incidents of sexual harassment and-or sexual assault to their university.

In general, students’ views on their university’s response protocol to sexual harassment and sexual assault indicated a perception that policies were inaccurate and reporting mechanisms slow.

Universities’ mishandling of incidents

Students cited several barriers when it came to reporting. For some, a lack of awareness about what constituted sexual harassment and sexual assault resulted in a considerable delay in reporting the incident, with some not reporting it at all.

Other students found that, after having filed a report, the process was too slow. “For many, the trauma of the original incident of sexual harassment and-or sexual assault was compounded by their university’s mishandlings of their report, discouraging victim/survivors from pursuing the reporting process to its conclusion,” the report noted.

For instance, the qualitative report included the submission of international student, Zara (not her real name), who said she was harassed again and again by a member of university staff, who sent her unwanted texts commenting on her appearance and referring to stereotypes about the country she came from.

“Two weeks later, I was told by the head of department to block the phone number of the accused and asked to no longer attend school seminars or social events as no one could guarantee my safety from this person,” she said.

In the two years since then she had not attended an academic seminar on her campus. She felt she had been left with full responsibility for her own safety while the university had continued to protect their staff member.

Long-term mental health problems

The primary impact of experiencing sexual harassment or assault at university was significant mental health problems, which often led to long-term impacts on self-esteem, self-confidence, and unhealthy relationships with substances, the survey found.

Students reported that these effects often corresponded with difficulties socialising and negatively impacted their relationships with those close to them.

Students also reported having difficulties trusting others, particularly men in cases where the perpetrator was male; a sense of hypervigilance when in public; and self-policing their behaviour.

“Reduced mental well-being proved detrimental to students’ capacity to not only perform academically, but also to engage in the social aspects of their university experience.

“In some cases, these mental health and social implications caused students to consider putting their studies on hold, to move universities, or to drop out of university completely. This was particularly the case where the perpetrator remained at the respondent’s university.”

The conclusion of the two reports was that the victim/survivor and broader student communities see a need for change in the way sexual harassment and sexual assault is “spoken about, reported and prevented” on Australian university campuses and in other university-related settings.

Students wanted universities to consult with victim/survivor-led organisations to create better support programmes for these communities more broadly, rather than just those who have experienced sexual harassment and-or sexual assault in a university context.

They suggested these sorts of systems would work towards reinforcing universities’ commitment to prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Students called for increased transparency of reporting processes that have an emphasis on believing victim/survivors’ experiences, as well as awareness campaigns about the avenues available to students who wish to report an incident.

They also recommended that there be visible and proportionate disciplinary action for perpetrators to show that universities take sexual harassment and sexual assault reports seriously.

‘Cultural shift’ needed in universities

These recommendations “called for a cultural shift away from values that condone sexual harassment and sexual assault and the silencing of victim/survivors”, the qualitative report said.

What was needed was an environment that perpetuates “nuanced understandings of gendered violence and respectful relationships”. Victim/survivors said this environment could be created with campaigns that have inclusive and positive views of sexuality and sex.

It was perceived that campaigns tailored to cohorts who are less knowledgeable, as well as those likely to be more vulnerable to these forms of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the staff delivering this support, would be most effective.

Evidence base for change

Dewar said in 2015 Universities Australia had launched the ‘Respect. Now. Always.’ campaign to raise awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

In 2016, Universities Australia engaged the Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake the first ever national survey on the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in university settings, making Australian universities the first in the world to commission a survey of this kind, Dewar said.

“That survey, which resulted in the Change the Course report, was an evidence base for change. Universities implemented hundreds of initiatives and measures to prevent and better respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Dewar said.

These included better reporting and evidence collection processes, consent training, respectful relationship education for students, stronger guidelines for relationships between supervisors and students, and overhauling the way reports of sexual harassment or sexual assault are handled by a university.

However, he conceded that following the 2021 survey, “we know we need to do more, and we will do it. These findings will guide our continuing work,” he said.