According to the 2021 National Student Safety Survey Report, in Australian universities, a concerning number of students have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. Approximately 4.5% of students have been sexually assaulted and 16.1% sexually harrassed since beginning university, with 1.1% of assaults and 8.1% of harassment incidents being experienced in the past 12 months as of 2021. Female students were more likely to have been sexually assaulted compared to their male peers.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sharna Bremner, the Founder and Director of End Rape On Campus Australia (EROC), a non-profit organisation that aims to end sexual violence at Australian universities and residential colleges. We discussed important topics such as the initiatives (EROC) has implemented to address and prevent sexual harassment and assault on campus and how to raise awareness about consent and foster healthy relationships. What can be done to create a safer campus for all students?
Q: Could you tell us about your organisation, ‘End Rape on Campus,’ and why it’s so important?
A: We are a very small not-for-profit team, funded and run fully by volunteers. We provide direct support to students who have been impacted by sexual assault to help them navigate the confusing systems that exist at universities when it comes to either reporting what happened, or accessing academic accommodations, additional time for exams, deadlines for essays and things like that.
What we realised was that many students are having trouble reporting their assaults because the information is not always made very clear. The processes take a really long time. They can be very confusing for students who are dealing with trauma and who are also still just trying to be students. We know that most students have a part time job in addition to their studies, and when you’re dealing with trauma and trying to cope with all of that at the same time, it can get really difficult. So, we formed the organisation to help.
Q: What are some of the key initiatives that your organisation has implemented to address and prevent sexual assault on campus?
A: We’ve worked with universities but also with state and federal governments to try and get universities to really be forced to do things in a concerted way and a properly resourced way to prevent sexual violence.
A lot of students now, when they first start university, will find they have to complete an online module called ‘Consent Matters’. It’s a checkbox exercise. It’s kind of a one off, really unhelpful module that doesn’t really teach students what they need to know. It’s not just about consent. While their consent is obviously a hugely important part of it, it’s also about keeping safe in a relationship, acting ethically in a relationship and understanding that having sex is a good thing. Those modules don’t really help with that, so we’ve been lobbying to try and get those improved so that students can get the education that they deserve.
We’ve also really been pushing for a federal level task force because we’ve seen that universities won’t do the right thing unless they’re made to and right now nobody’s making them. We were the first organisation to establish a website that contains all of the information about where students can report (sexual assault). We also filed the first ever federal complaint against a university for not adequately addressing the issues of sexual assault and harassment on campus.
In 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission surveyed students around the country in relation to sexual assault and sexual harassment experiences at uni. We lobbied along with the National Union of Students and were able to get just under a million dollars for a hotline to support students, because students do need different information from support services than they might get from a service like 1800 RESPECT. For example, 1800 RESPECT doesn’t know how to help you get an extension on your essay.
Q: What do you think are some of the main factors contributing to rape culture on university campuses? And how can this be prevented?
A: Students, especially right now, exist in this kind of grey area. We’ve seen a lot of work being done to get consent and respectful relationship education embedded in school curriculums, but students who are on campuses now have missed that. Not everybody on a university campus right now has had any kind of education around violence prevention, respectful relationships, and around ethical sex. We would love to be able to see that kind of thing implemented because I think that’s a huge contributor to the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment on university campuses.
In addition to that, we do see alcohol facilitate a lot of sexual assault cases within university setting. We know that students who live on campus in particular are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. You get this kind of convergence of things that all exist within a university campus that are quite unique, but reflective of broader society. They seem to happen in this microcosm. So, universities are really the missing link right now in addressing sexual assault in Australia more broadly.
Q: What sort of measures and strategies have aided in creating safer campus environments in Australia? And how can students, faculty, and staff actively contribute to creating a safer campus?
A: Some of the things that we’ve seen that have created safer campuses have been really strong stances by universities in the sanctions they apply when people are found to have sexually assaulted a peer or a colleague. Firing a staff member who has sexually assaulted students is a really good way to go. Expelling students who sexually assault their peers is another really good way of addressing the issue. We know from the US that rapists may assault around six people on average before they’re caught, so when they’re caught, getting rid of them is probably a good idea. It’s also been good to see universities that have properly resourced their prevention education departments. Some universities do a lot better than others.
Another key thing that universities can do for their students, students’ families, and the broader community is to publicise how many reports of assaults that they receive every year. That’s usually a pretty good sign on how seriously they’re taking it.
We also just want to remind all students that you have a right to an education that’s free from sexual assault and sexual harassment. Your university has a responsibility to keep you safe on campus. I think a lot of students aren’t aware of their rights right now.
Q: What do you think universities in Australia could do to improve education and awareness about consent, healthy relationships, and sexual violence prevention?
A: We would love to see them actually use the experts that they have. Each university does have people who do research and violence prevention. Some of the best resources in the world are working in our universities. They could be developing the educational models that they know will work. Universities aren’t investing resources adequately within those prevention education spaces.
We would love to see students get proper, holistic, respectful relationship education and sexuality education that addresses everybody’s experience and isn’t just aimed at straight, able bodied people. We need to be able to talk more openly, especially with young adults about what good sex is, how that looks for everybody involved and being able to have those really open and adult conversations.
Q: How can universities in Australia better support and protect survivors of sexual assault and create a survivor-centred approach?
A: They can better support survivors by believing them. That’s step number one, and taking concrete action when somebody reports something to them.
We’re also not seeing them properly supporting student survivors to continue their education. Most of the students we work with, the main thing that they want to be able to do is just continue their education safely. They want to be able to go to campus and not be scared, they want to be able to graduate and they don’t want huge HECS debts because they’ve had to repeat classes. Students shouldn’t have to provide documentation every semester to get academic accommodations, because trauma is not something you heal from very quickly. Also, campuses right now around the country don’t have adequate counselling for their student bodies. And universities can absolutely afford to do that.
If universities were really coming at this problem with a trauma informed approach, they would start by believing survivors, and recognising that trauma has ongoing impacts.
Anyone who is experiencing an immediate crisis relating to sexual harassment or assault should call 000. If you are experiencing or at risk of sexual violence and need support, please call the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre on (02) 6287 3618 during office hours or vial their Crisis Line on (02) 6247 2525 (between 7am and 11pm). For the contact information of other national support services, please visit the National Association of Services Against Sexual Violence website: https://www.nasasv.org.au/support-directory
Resources for UC students including how to report an incident, support for survivors and UC’s policy and procedure on sexual misconduct can be found here: https://www.canberra.edu.au/safe-community/sexual-violence-information-and-resources