This past week has seen some disturbing reports and allegations come to light concerning rates of sexual assault and harassment on campus. Claims of slut shaming of female students at colleges, of a culture of publicly documenting and rating sexual experiences between students, of feeling unsafe on and around campus, not only at parties but also while studying and traveling through. It’s important, and depressing, to stress that these incidents don’t appear to be restricted to one or two parts of the university, but unfortunately are widespread experiences for students, particularly women.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect is the almost universal feedback that, of the students who did report their experiences to university and college management, the response was lacklustre at best and non-existent at worst. Sexual assault and harassment at universities is not new. Only a few years ago, students at St Paul’s College were found to have set up a “pro-rape” Facebook page. Just last year a student was accused of distributing a recording of a sexual experience with a fellow student without her consent, whilst residing in university housing. The Talk About It survey run by the National Union of Students has found that, at campuses right across the country, experiencing sexual harassment and assault is almost part and parcel of going to uni.
And yet, despite all this, it seems the majority of staff still don’t really know how to respond to such cases. The university has set up a working group to look at how to improve responses to harassment and assault, and yet the findings of a university-run survey from last year still haven’t been released. Despite repeated requests from the SRC and other student reps, the working group has only met once this year with no follow up since. It is vital that universities ensure they have procedures in place to support victims and punish perpetrators, as well as educate staff and students on what sexual harassment and assault is, how to report it, and how to respond if you witness it. Students need to know they will be believed and provided with the appropriate support networks if they come forward, and unfortunately at the moment that cannot be said at the University of Sydney. This must change and your SRC will be working to ensure it does.