When with great fanfare, the AHRC last week released “Changing The Course“, its report on sexual harassment and assault at Australian universities, commentators divided along the usual cultural left/cultural right lines. The AHRC kicked things off with a few horror stats, suggesting that 51% of all students at 39 Australian universities had been sexually harassed in the last two years, and 6.9% had been sexually assaulted (on or off campus). “End campus rape now” went up the signs on Twitter; talk of an epidemic went round the traps.

The right responded by reaching into the report to grab other stats, to announce that things weren’t so bad. Bettina Arndt grabbed another assault figure — 1.6% of students in university settings — and said with baiting glee that this was “a great result”, all things considered. Mark Latham and Andrew Bolt piled in on the nature of the survey underlying the report, which relied on voluntary, self-selecting, responses. Lenore Taylor hit back in The Guardian, defending the report’s safeguards against skewing by self-reporting, and largely endorsing its tone of quiet emergency, demanding instant action.

So who’s right?

Sadly for the political league tables, the right is mostly right on this one. Though some of their criticisms are a little clueless, “Changing The Course” is indeed an ill thought-out, poorly structured piece of social research, which does nothing to identify the challenges tertiary students face, as challenges, tells us little about the real temper of sexual harassment and assault on campus, and will result in little more than legitimising extended regimes of surveillance, speech policing and behavioural control on campuses. It should be questioned as much, or more, by the radical/material left as by the goon squad. Left-liberals and cultural leftists who rubber stamp it do no one any favours. This report will be used for an attack on campus freedom, even though it produces no findings that would warrant it.

The problems of the changing the course report fall in three areas. The first is the evidence gathering. The report constructed a “stratified” pool of just over 312,000 students (under a third of total students from the 39 universities) to receive a 20-page survey form with around 150 question/response lines. Thirty thousand were completed and returned, for a 9.7% response rate, and an overall representation of less than 3% of all students.

That is pretty low, even for these sort of survey exercises (the surveyors say they accepted a 10-15% response; it is 9.7%), and the report itself includes a caveat right at the start:  

“The survey data has been derived from a sample of the target population who were motivated to respond, and who made an autonomous decision to do so. It may not necessarily be representative of the entire university student population.” (p29)

So the robustness of the survey is almost immediately disavowed. A whole half of the survey is further and explicitly disavowed:

” … men who had experienced or witnessed sexual assault or sexual harassment may have been more likely to complete the survey. Therefore, caution must be taken in relation to our results which are projected to the population of male students. These may be an overestimation of the rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment experienced by male university students.” (p.29)

Only in the case of women respondents does the report argue for a lack of response bias, using an argument that cannot really be assessed by non-specialists.*

The second problem is the structure of the survey questions. The survey distinguishes between sexual harassment and sexual assault. Harassment is broken into 10 categories. Sexual assault isn’t broken into any. Here’s the definition attached to the yes/no question asked:

“Sexual assault includes a range of behaviours, all of which are unacceptable and constitute a crime. Sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual acts against their will or without their consent, including when they have withdrawn their consent.” (p212)

This definition is hopeless, for several reasons. Firstly, the inclusion of “tricking” muddies the waters, since most acts of lying/tricking to get sex are not crimes and do not legally constitute sexual assault. Secondly, even without that element, the one question covers a vast range of events, from gang rape to unwanted touching, groping, etc. **

The aggregation of these vastly different acts is bewildering. Surely the whole point of the survey was to try and gain a picture of what is going on, on campus? The report has been commissioned in part in response to the “End Rape On Campus” movement, yet the survey does not give respondents any chance to declare that they were actually raped. Indeed, every aspect of sexual assault is disaggregated — where/when/details of assailant, etc — except the actual nature of the assault itself.

Sexual harassment is disaggregated, but then re-aggregated, resulting in a large number. At one end of the sexual harassment spectrum, it overlaps with assault, including “unwanted kissing, touching, cornering”, etc. At the other it includes “staring and leering” and “jokes or remarks” that the hearer found offensive. This brings a huge subjective component into the “harassment” category, and it is from this that the shock-horror 51% figure is derived.

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When you break down the figures, there’s a lot less going on. According to the survey, 51% of the respondents said they had experienced harassment in or out of university in 2015 or 2016, 26% on campus. Of that 26%, half of it is staring or offensive comments, 14% is “intrusiveness” — repeated questioning, asking out, etc — and 17% is unwanted touching, gestures, being flashed, etc. 

The problem with these statistics is they tell us very little. “‘Staring and leering” can cover everything from an unwanted glance to menacing ogling. “Suggestive/offensive comments” can include everything from disgusting abuse to a Christian student getting told a dirty joke in the coffee lounge. Focusing on the “insistence” and “physical conduct” data gives us 14% of 26% on campus, or 3.8% of students experiencing this behaviour on campus. Physical/gestural incidents are 17% of 26%, or about 4.5% on campus.

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That’s a total of 8.3% over two years. I have no idea how much of the “leering/staring” “suggestive comments” percentage to put back in. Half? A third? But it doesn’t begin to add to the top-line figures — 51%, etc — that the AHRC has been using to publicise the report, or to the epidemic claimed, and neither it nor the assault figures diverge from wider society figures to suggest that anything special is going on on campuses. There are further problems that make these figures even less reliable, which I’ll exile to the footnotes. ***

The figure for sexual assault is 6.9% on or off campus, 1.6% on campus, over two years. That is, of the survey respondents, about 250 incidents per year, on campus. But that could be 250 gang-rapes or 250 gropes or 250 “sure, I’m in the rowing team” or anything in between. From this survey, we do not know. If there is a “hunting ground” — a culture of predatory rape on campuses — then this survey’s design manages to hide it in a larger thicket of generic sexual assault. That seems, to say the least, counterproductive.

The report is, in my opinion, indefensible for these reasons. Based on poor research design, it has produced tangled figures, and issued a caveat/disavowal of scaling them up to the student population as a whole — which was the whole point of the exercise in the first place. It will be used not to tackle instances of campus-specific sexual assault and harassment, but to spread a net of yet more surveillance and discourse policing over institutions that should be centres of free and uninhibited inquiry. Left-liberal journalists and commentators who defend it without considering its content are being lazy and cowardly, as bad as the climate-change deniers on the right. Left groups that operate on campuses who endorse it will simply be undermining their own basis of operation, the right to speak freely and to question authority. And one will wait to see if there is even one vice chancellor willing to push back against this, and the unwarranted attack on academic freedom it represents.



*In The Guardian, Lenore Taylor chides Bolt, Arndt and others for noting the “scaling” caveat, while ignoring the report’s statement that it had had response bias independently checked, using the proportion ratio of stratified samples (by four variables of student enrolment type) to the responses, from each university. But Taylor only notes the caveats buried in the appendix in passing:

“This analysis found that universities with a higher proportion of survey respondents who said they had witnessed sexual harassment at university in 2016 had higher response rates. This indicates that survey respondents who witnessed sexual harassment in 2016 may have been more likely to respond to the National Survey.

“An examination of the responses from men and women revealed that for men, there was a positive association between response rates and experiencing or witnessing sexual assault or sexual harassment. This indicates that men who had experienced or witnessed sexual assault or sexual harassment may have been more likely to complete the survey.

“Therefore, caution must be taken in relation to our results which are projected to the population of male students. These may be an overestimation of the rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment experienced by male university students.

“No such ‘response bias’ was identified in relation to women and we are therefore more confident in projecting these results to the population of female university students.”

Men constitute 45% of the respondents. “Witnessing” (by men and women) constitutes a major area of activity that the sample surveys. How can it be a reliable document when it admits that more than half of its recorded data may be subject to response bias?

** This part of the wording is ambiguous:

“Sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual acts against their will or without their consent …”

In sex crime law, “sex-by-deception” as “tricking” that makes sex non-consensual has a very narrow purview, applying to deceptions such as what sex/gender you are. “Tricking” in the form of lying for sex does not remove consent in law, and it does not count in sexual assault surveying in other fields. But it seems quite possible that a number of respondents might believe that “lying” does count, and thus answer “yes” to the question, further distorting the figures.

*** The disaggregation of the harassment figures includes the group “unwanted kissing, touching, cornering” (5%) and “unwanted physical contact” (5%). These categories are aggregations of the 10 response categories, but there is no indication as to how they sorted them. There is clearly a double-counting possibility.

There is also a curious closeness of the figures for female and male harassment. In “leering and staring”, the female figure is 40%, the male figure 32%. Even if some GBTQ men are getting such harassment, is it really believable that straight men in large numbers are being ogled by predatory females? This indicates one of the contradictions/embarrassments of the survey. Indeed, the high numbers of men (and of straight men) reporting harassment overall suggests either 1) that the response bias is severe, or 2) that the “gender inequality” argument around sexual harassment/assault does not stand.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey