“Speak Up, Speak Out. Hold Your Uni to Account!”
Words by Juliet Lochrin
THE REPORT (PART ONE)
At 12:15pm on Wednesday, August 1st, 2018, students, staff, and alumni from various universities in Sydney gathered together outside Sydney University’s Fisher Library to protest against sexual assault and harassment on our university campuses. The rally originally planned to march down Eastern Avenue and up to UTS, but after a number of speakers called out The University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, for his “rushed”, “superficial”, and purely “placative” response to the Australian Human Rights Commission and Universities Australia policy on Sexual Assault and Harassment, the rally turned its attention to marching into The Quadrangle and parking itself outside the Vice-Chancellor’s office.
The discussion started on the topic of gendered violence and inequality right from the beginning in Akala Newman’s (The University of Sydney’s Indigenous Officer) Acknowledgement of Country. From what started off as a vulnerable beginning to her piece on how intersectionality generally attracts higher rates of inequality, Akala’s speech became confident and determined as she tied her Acknowledgement to the rally’s cause with her proclamation that “colonisation itself was the rape of this country”. Further in line with the cause of this rally, Akala noted how rates of gendered violence are higher for Indigenous women. She also recognised, along with other speakers, that it in fact any intersectional minority – whether that be in relation to able-bodied-ness, sexuality/queer identity, race, intellectual handicap or mental illness, victims of domestic violence, etc. – would find themselves in unacceptable positions of higher risk to indecent sexual assault.
Macquarie University’s Lydia Jupp continued in this vein by calling out society’s exploitation of black bodies and, indeed, all bodies, and how this is reflected in Macquarie University’s under-funded sexual consent education. While the University of Sydney has introduced the ‘Consent Matters’ Module in 2018 for students, circumstances are still far from ideal in the context of student safety and the measures that could be implemented, as well as the calibre of response from those in secluded, high positions (@MichaelSpence). Lydia (#callmebymyfirstname) shared an anecdote of her experience with Macquarie University’s President of the Men’s Society, recounting how he had dismissed the validity of those in victimised positions, and instead stated that it was an issue of “security” surrounding young people going out. Unfortunately, this view only plays into the common narrative that already so prevalently surrounds the issue of sexual assault and harassment; as is characteristic of this narrative and its rhetoric, blame is attributed to the victim who was “asking for it” or “not being careful”, and any support available to the victim is often not ‘survivor-centric’.
Sydney University’s Women’s Officer, Madeline Ward, called out USyd’s Student Services on this absence of available survivor-centric support. She noted how the University’s ‘Online Disclosure Portal’ was “superficial…bureaucratic nonsense…designed to placate the public and the media”. She called Michael Spence out on how he had been advised by some not to publish the portal (as it was rushed and not yet ready), but how he had done so regardless. How there were not just word limits for the sexual assault claims, but also time limits. How, if a survivor was to have a panic attack or to experience symptoms of PTSD while recalling their assault experience in order to report it, their 500-word description of the attack would be erased after ten minutes.
Senator Lee Rhiannon also expressed concerns about the corporate nature of universities prioritising the protection of their ‘brand’ over the safety of students. The complex portal system, she said, does not seem to support survivors, but appears to rather deter people from reporting in order to maintain an agreeable image for fee-paying students. A 500-word limit for describing the attack, a 300-word limit for describing the attacker, and the mandatory UniKey both compromise the potential anonymity of the reporter and make it impossible for any person who is not a current student at the university to report an assault that occurred on the university’s grounds. Lee used the issue of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses as a springboard for her argument that these issues are being faced by people – predominantly, although not limited to, women – in all realms of society. That anybody in any place of work or learning should have the right to feel safe.
Madeline and Lee also both commented on the state of the residential colleges at the University of Sydney. Not only are they “breeding grounds for the Australian ruling class” (Madeline Ward) with their financial “elitism” (Lee Rhiannon), but they constitute the bed of “rape culture” (Lee Rhiannon). Lee addressed the idea that the ‘colleges need not be shut down, just cleaned up’, but quickly shut that down when she stated that “[they] are past cleaning up… [sexual assault and harassment in colleges] goes back to the 1930’s, and earlier”. St Paul’s widely-publicised and notorious reputation for indecent assault was also brought up by Lee to reinforce her argument, who recalled her shock and disgust at discovering a “Pro-Rape Against Consent” Facebook page by boys who attended the college.
Hon. MP Tanya Plibersek also gave some words at the rally. While Macquarie’s Lydia Jupp proclaimed that the reason for her presence at this year’s rally was due to the fact that not enough had changed since last year’s rally, Tanya extrapolated by stating that she was in attendance because “[she] was here thirty years ago and still not enough has changed”. She noted how the rhetoric had changed, but not the actions, and that was what student activism encouraged. Like the others, Tanya talked passionately about the complex and discouraging reporting provisions. She emphasised how only a fraction of assaults were reported, and most recently this number amounted to 600. Of these 600 cases, only six were followed up. One percent of reported cases were dealt with adequately. She noted how unlikely it was that the perpetrator would actually be held accountable. She also talked about the double standards in levels of education systems; how, if such an event was reported in a high school, there would be outrage (“as there should be”), but that if the student was to “move into university three months later”, such a report would be dismissed and almost taken as a given.
Finally, one of the most succinct pieces of rhetoric that was communicated (by Tanya Plibersek) was in regard to the wider social benefits that would occur following such changes within universities. Universities are microcosms of society and represent the transition of people from secondary education into the work force; “cultural norms follow people out of university into the workplace”.
What kind of world do we want to make?
Read tomorrow the author's thoughts on the issue.