A recent survey by the National Union of Students has found that one in 10 female students have experienced sexual violence at an Australian university. Fifteen hundred women participated in the survey that revealed more than a third of them reported having been sexually harassed at university. These startling preliminary figures highlight what Chrystina Stanford, executive officer of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, calls a crime unlike any other.
“Sexual assault is unfortunately an issue that a lot of institutions don’t want to deal with,” Stanford said, “For victims there is a lot of shame, there’s a lot of self blame and there is a lot of fear about coming forward.”
Raveena Toor, an ANU law student and a former women’s officer at one of the university’s residential lodges (UniLodge), says she is very concerned about the situation.
In her first year of university, Toor lived in John XXIII College. Affiliated with the ANU but owned and operated by the Dominican Fathers, it’s home to just over 300 students. “John’s” is known among the students as a college that harbours a very misogynistic culture and one in which sexual assaults are allegedly commonplace.
Toor described an incident in which she opened her college bedroom door to witness the degradation of a rape victim:
“I went out into the corridor and then there was a girl who was n-ked and passed out and obviously had been assaulted because she was bruised and injured and guys came out and took photos of her and thought it was quite amusing, and she’d been raped.”
Another story recounted by Toor involved a practice known as “rock-spidering”. This appalling “game” sees male students knocking on women resident’s doors during orientation week. If the girl answers the door, it is considered consent. This practice has allegedly resulted in numerous sexual assaults — many of which have gone unreported — and the Canberra R-pe Crisis Centre has confirmed that it is aware of this activity in the college.
Courtney Sloane, an ANU student and the women’s officer for the NUS, also used to live in John’s College during her first years at university. She says that she constantly felt unsafe in the college, “I had people make comments on my sex life and the things that I do within that sex life which I found really intrusive and should have absolutely nothing to do with my time at university, or me as a person,” she said, “It’s my place where I sleep, it’s where I study, it’s where I eat and having that kind of thing put on you every day is really frustrating.”
Toor and Sloane strongly criticised the administration at John’s college when it came to dealing with allegations of sexual assault. They claim it was implied that if a woman was promiscuous or drunk that she could have expected subjection to that kind of behaviour. The women also criticised the process of investigating allegations and claimed that victims were often bullied when they came forward without being made aware of their rights or given any guidance.
But the current head of John’s College, Sean Brito-Babapulle, says that these claims are ludicrous.
“Anything of this nature that gets put onto my desk is dealt with immediately. We [the administration] at John’s aren’t experts; I’m certainly not an expert in this area, which is why we turn to the relevant people such as the police, the university, the R-pe Crisis Centre and other counselling services.”
Brito-Babapulle adds: “We have to take many things into consideration when dealing with these issues, including confidentiality, the safety and feelings of the victim as well as the person being accused and the reputation of the college.”
However, Toor and Sloane stress that this problem is not isolated to one college; it is a problem on many campuses and within many residential colleges.
In fact, my university (the University of Canberra) had the highest combined number of sexual assaults and indecent acts reported to the Australian Federal police between 2005-2010, with ANU coming in second among higher education institutions in the nation’s capital.
At ANU the students themselves are being forced to fight for their right to safety and protection on campus. Complaints of a lack of policy regarding sexual assault at the ANU have led to the establishment of a “safety on campus” group made up of concerned student representatives. Their aim is to produce a comprehensive policy to present to university management outlining a suitable approach to dealing with sexual assault on campus and in colleges.
“With the safety group, we feel there is a greater sense of momentum with this issue than there has been before,” Toor says. “At present there is a lack of training, a lack of policy and a lack of disciplinary action outlined, so it’s not really treated as serious an issue as it should be.”
In response, the ANU has commissioned the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre to help with training for residential staff and leaders. Director of the ANU campus and residences committee, Luce Andrews, is very enthusiastic about the changes.
“We’re not approaching the whole issue only from the view of addressing assault, we’re trying to approach the whole issue from the point of view of increasing skills and increasing communication, trying to make a cultural shift in general for the people that we’re working with. So far the feedback has been fantastic.”
The University of Canberra’s spokesman Ed O’Daly says the management of UC residences has recently been asked to explore training programs offered by the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre “… no assault, sexual or otherwise, is acceptable and the university remains committed to doing everything it can to keep its campus community safe.”
*You can follow @ellemackintosh on Twitter. She is a third-year journalism-law student at the University of Canberra.