“Disturbing picture” of sexual harassment at Australian universities

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A landmark report detailing sexual harassment and assault at Australia’s universities found more than half of all students have been harassed.

The report, based on a survey of more than 30,000 students across 39 universities, painted a “disturbing picture” of sexual assault and harassment faced by students, said Kate Jenkins, the sex discrimination commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Some 51 percent said they were sexually harassed in 2015 or 2016 and about 7 percent of university students were sexually assaulted at least once in the same time frame, the report found.

Of those who faced sexual harassment, one in five said it took place “at a university setting” in 2016.

More than one million students are enrolled at Australian universities, including more than 270,000 international students, according to the most recent data.

The report made nine recommendations to Australia’s universities, including evaluating the processes students use to report assault and harassment and efforts to change attitudes and behavior.

“Sexual assault and harassment have no place in Australian universities, just as they have no place anywhere in Australia,” said Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education.

The report’s definition of sexual harassment included staring or leering, insults of a sexual nature, displaying posters of a sexual nature, sending sexually explicit messages, and requests for sex or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates, among other things.

“We must and we will do better,” said Professor Brian Schmidt, the vice-chancellor of the Australian National University.

“Too prevalent”

Jenkins said the report contained three important findings: sexual assault and harassment are “far too prevalent in university settings,” the problem is under reported and universities need to do more to stymie it.

Other countries have drawn similar conclusions when it comes to the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus, though the numbers may differ per country.

A groundbreaking 2015 study by the Association of American Universities (AAU) found 23 percent of women said they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact – ranging from kissing to touching to rape, carried out by force or threat of force, or while they were incapacitated because of alcohol and drugs. Nearly 11 percent said the unwanted contact included penetration or oral sex.

A 2016 report by the Universities UK said “on sexual violence explicitly, there is no comprehensive data available to indicate how many UK university students are affected by such incidents,” but the British media have tried to uncover the scope of the issue. The Telegraph reported in 2015 as many as one in three women may be abused or assaulted on campus.

Rape culture?

Of the students who said they’d been assaulted, 1.6 percent were sexually assaulted in a university setting. Australia’s legal code generally defines sexual assault as sexual intercourse or sexual penetration (including oral sex) without consent, according to the report.

Forty percent of students who were sexually assaulted at school setting did not report the most recent incident because they did not think it was serious enough to merit it. Another 40 percent said they didn’t need help, the report said.

Student representatives said universities could have acted earlier to combat sexual harassment and violence.

“Universities have helped rape culture flourish on and off campus. Vice Chancellors need to own up and apologize for not protecting us, for letting perpetrators off the hook while we are left to drop out of university,” said Abby Stapleton of the Australian National Union of Students Women’s Office and a student at Monash University. “This report release is monumental for students everywhere. Universities can no longer get away with silencing us. Our experiences are reflected in the data… We were fighting this 50 years ago and, if reform isn’t achieved, we’ll continue to fight.”

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