Take a breath. Our unis are not hotbeds of sexual assault

THE release of the Human Rights Commission report on sexual harassment and assault at universities was always going to command attention this week.

Universities broadcast the release live. Media were poised. Headlines were guaranteed.

It was worthy of attention and it certainly produced the goods.

More than 30,000 students surveyed can't be wrong, and if huge numbers of them perceived they were harassed or assaulted, they were.

But some careful teasing out of the detail is needed to get a true picture of what this report says.

For a start, it seems that in the interpretation, the terms sexual assault and sexual harassment have been blended together, resulting in groups like End Rape on Campus Australia encouraging people to take care of each other.

But does the report suggest rape is rampant on campus? No, it does not. Does it find that sexual assaults are common on campuses? No, it does not.

Please do not misunderstand: I am not suggesting that sexual assault is ever acceptable.

After HRC report on sexual harassment, do you think unis are doing enough to prevent the issue?

This poll ended on 10 August 2017.

Current Results

Yes, it's a problem that concerns me.

0%

No, it's not as big an issue as the HRC made it out to be.

50%

More can always be done, regardless of the report.

50%

This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

That 6.9 per cent of the 30,000 students surveyed reported being sexually assaulted - defined as being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will - in 2015 and 2016 is horrifying.

But it must be noted that only 1.6 per cent said the assault took place at a university-related activity, with most of these occurring at a social event.

Suddenly, the university-related numbers are not quite as horrific as they appeared.

As with many focused studies, this study was always going to turn up something alarming.

The report introduction says the study came about as a result of advocacy by survivors and other advocates to raise the issue of sexual assault at universities. They looked, and of course they found.

They also have a demographic in which sexual interaction is common in general.

The introduction of the report admits as much: "The results of the prevalence survey are a reflection of the unacceptably high levels of sexual violence in the broader Australian community. We know from existing research that young people, especially young women between the ages of 18 and 24, are at an increased risk of experiencing sexual violence."

Sexual assault is by its nature physical, but is sexual harassment violent? Not when considering how it is framed in the survey.

Sexual harassment includes staring and leering, sexually suggestive comments and jokes, intrusive questions about someone's private life, displaying posters of a sexual nature, unwanted requests to go out on dates and sharing sexually explicit emails.

The definition is a far too broad, and so sexual harassment was found to be rampant. Surprise, surprise.

Reading between the lines of the report, while universities certainly need to be vigilant and encourage respectful behaviours on campus, they are not hotbeds of sex.

For example, while the report found that half of all university students had been sexually harassed sometime in 2015 or 2016, this mostly did not occur in a university setting.

For the purposes of the survey, incidents which occurred in 'university settings' were rolled together. This included off-campus events organised by or endorsed by the university as well as in the classrooms.

So in the survey, a ball and a tutorial were treated as equals, even though in the analysis the authors contend that alcohol was one of several contributing factors and most students are not under a boozy influence in class.

Apples are compared with pears and they are put in the same basket.

The other alarming inclusion in the statistics is assaults or harassment on the way to or from uni, even though conduct on buses and trains is surely not the responsibility of the universities.

Public transport was found to be the most common location where students were harassed in 2015 and 2016 and the second most common location for assaults.

While the universities were united in pledging to try to do better in response to the report, it must be noted that 94 per cent of students who said they had been harassed and 87 per cent who said they were assaulted did not report it.

The most common reason given was they did not think the incident was serious enough. Most also did not seek advice or support in or out of the university in relation to the incident.

If a person does not speak up, does not reach out and does not think the incident warranted mention, why is it presumed they need or want help?

This report does not find that universities are heaving seas of sex assault and harassment. It reinforces findings that by a very broad definition, people often feel sexually harassed in the broader community.

When a sideways look or being present during the telling of a smutty joke are rolled in with rape and unwanted touching, we have lost our focus.

Let's get a more educated perspective, please.

Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalist and lecturer in journalism at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

News Corp Australia


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