Blindfolded Institutions: Uncovering Sexual Assaults in Australian Universities


Words || Taylor Cohen

Before I exposed the Village Party Central 2016 secret Facebook page to the ABC, I didn’t realise the extent of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses around Australia. I was deeply concerned by the circulation of images of students engaging in substance abuse and sexual misconduct, perhaps without the knowledge of the subject. Still more concerning was the claim that users would ‘post all the career/life ruining pics/vids, only “delet[ing] the whole thing after a ten year mark”.

“Multiple incidents of sexism, sexual harassment and assault on university campuses have been brought to light.”

I was dismayed by Macquarie University’s response to my concerns. I received just one statement by a spokesperson for the University which assured me that it would be investigated and that the university was committed to providing a safe environment. The Regional General Manager of Campus Living Villages (CLV) made a similar statement to Grapeshot recently, saying that CLV have ‘proceeded with an ongoing investigation into the matter, which has been conducted in consultation with key contacts from Macquarie University.’

Further, they ‘confirmed that disciplinary proceedings are taking place, but due to privacy and confidentiality constraints, the names of the individuals responsible for the running of the page couldn’t be released.’ This year, multiple incidents of sexism, sexual harassment and assault on university campuses have been brought to light.

Students from UNSW’s Baxter College were reportedly caught singing sexist chants. An investigation has been launched into a group of students at the University of Sydney’s Wesley College who published a journal in 2014 that details sexual encounters in the college. Australian National University college students were found to be sharing explicit photos of fellow students.

“Institutions have continually failed both victims and whistleblowers of sexual harassment and assault.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, approximately one in five women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek recently disclosed that she was stalked and received rape threats while she was a Women’s Officer at university. It is evident that the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses is a result of a broader problem in Australian society.

It seems that institutions have continually failed both victims and whistleblowers of sexual harassment and assault. In 2011, a review led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick recommended nationwide surveys into sexual assault on university campuses.

It is only now, five years later, that Universities Australia, in conjunction with the Australian Humans Right Commission, have rolled out a nationwide survey under the Respect Now Always campaign. The University of Sydney has, however, recently released their own report, which found that one in four students experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment or assault, stalking, or other unacceptable behaviour during their time at university.

Fifteen past and present Women’s Officers from the University of Sydney have also written an open letter to their Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, demanding the university address its own report findings. The letter reads: ‘The University has a duty to its students to provide a safe environment that is conducive to learning … it has failed to live up to this duty and instigate genuine cultural change.’ The demands included that the university should independently review its sexual assault and harassment reporting procedures, and implement training and education for student groups and staff members.

At the Respect.Now.Always launch and the screening of the film The Hunting Ground at Macquarie University, Vice Chancellor Professor Bruce Dowton declared via video link that the University can and will support its victims of sexual assault. But the Village Party Central 2016 page perpetrators continue to walk around campus. It is unclear what, if any, ‘disciplinary proceedings’ have been put in place. Lawyer and educator Adair Donaldson, who works with sexual abuse survivors, said that institutions across Australia need to be ‘implementing compulsory interactive training that deals with issues involving consent and sexual harassment.’