Every Inch: On student activism and sexual violence

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Warning: This article includes discussions of sexual harassment and assault. For support please visit www.mq.edu.au/respect.

Words || Angus Dalton

The other day I opened an issue of Arena (a student magazine that was one of Grapeshot’s predecessors) from 1989. In huge letters, the feature story read: SEXUAL DISCRIMINATION IS RIFE ON THIS CAMPUS – WE WON’T PUT UP WITH IT.

The following article advertised a ‘phone in’ organised by the Women’s Department, the NSW Intercampus Women’s Group and the NSW Union of Students Women’s Committee. Students were asked to call anonymously and speak of their experiences regarding sexual harassment and discrimination on campus to be used in a campaign for policy reform.

The article reads:

“At Macquarie, inadequate grievance procedures and publicity of avenues of recourse open to ‘harassed or discriminated students’ results in two problems: students are confused about how to seek help if they are suffering from harassment, and secondly, a lack of publication of what is or what constitutes sexual harassment adds to this generally confused atmosphere and allows harassers to continue harassing without peer group or punitive based action.

It would appear that the onus is still on the victim at this university to ‘set things straight’ rather than the onus being on the harassers to change their act.”

That was almost three decades ago.

At the start of August this year, the Australian Human Rights Commission released the results of a national survey that proved empirically what students already knew (both through experience and more formal methods of investigation like the aforementioned phone survey): instances of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination are vastly underreported.

But even when instances of sexual harassment and assault have been reported, there are recent examples of when the university has mishandled cases, allowing for perpetrators to continue exhibiting the same sexually inappropriate behaviors.

Earlier this year, former Editor-in-Chief of Grapeshot Angela Heathcote spent weeks on an investigation into sexual harassment occurring in the Sci-Fi Society and the Computer and Gaming Society, and the inadequacies of the university to stem the issue.

Several complaints were made about a student’s behaviour to Campus Engagement, a wing of the university who are required to forward complaints of this nature to the Disciplinary Committee and the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Students).

Heathcote uncovered that the complaints were not forwarded for well over a month, as the sexual harassment continued and female students departed the student groups as a result. She also found that a staff member had encouraged victims of sexual harassment to confront their perpetrator rather than make it the university’s problem. The writers of Arena would be dismayed to know that the concerns they raised 28 years ago had still not been addressed.

The complaints were not resolved and the perpetrator continues to sit on a number of executive teams. The two staff members who mishandled the incident no longer work for the university.

Student activists – whether they operate through protests or print – have been at the forefront of uncovering the university’s shameful inadequacy in stopping sexual violence and rape culture on campus since Macquarie’s conception.

The current Women’s Collective – fronted by president Jasmine Noud [pictured] and vice president Eliza Versegi – have been instrumental in supporting and advocating for those impacted by sexual assault and harassment, both before and in the wake of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s survey.

At other universities, the women’s officers get paid for their work. The students here, who fight, write, protest and reform policy to make the university safer for all students, don’t receive a dollar.

Vice Chancellor, Professor S Bruce Dowton, spoke at a Speaker Event as the results were released run by the Respect.Now.Always. team (which, incidentally, is run by two ex-Macquarie student activists), and said that he was committed to implementing change well into the future. The results release day shouldn’t be seen as a singular event, he opined, but a milestone in a journey towards a safer campus.

But Bruce wasn’t brave enough to look back.

He didn’t apologise to the survivors of sexual violence that the university had failed to support, both during his time and before. He didn’t address or thank generations of student activists who had been pushing for change and accountability for decades. Every inch of progress on this issue is due to them.

Even during the Q&A panel, it was up to student panelist Jimmy Brackin to get the conversation back on course when the VC wandered into problematic territory as he talked about the effect of drugs and alcohol on sexual assault and harassment.

‘This kind of language around sexual assault and harassment is usually extremely derailing of the real concerns at play here,’ said Jimmy, who was backed up by Macquarie academic and fellow panelist Dr Catherine Lumby.

‘We need to see people (usually men) take responsibility for their actions. You can remove drugs and alcohol from the equation and you still have the unbelievable entitlement that men feel towards feminine bodies.’

Similarly, Jasmine Noud had to call out ABC journalists for bluntly asking students whether they’d been sexually assaulted for vox pops at a rally protesting sexual violence on campus.

Noud has also said that while the Respect.Now.Always team have been ‘vital’ to student engagement with this issue, and are an exemplar case of positive working relationships between student activists and the university in making meaningful, practical change.

‘Given all the work they do, it’s somewhat disappointing that RNA remains as small as it is, given that for a department of a few people they have made a larger impact on changing the culture of Macquarie and bringing light to the institutionalised issue of rape culture than the Chancellery, or any other department of the university,’ says Noud.

‘They have spearheaded campaigns and are committed to working with, rather than against, students and activists.’

As stated however, students are disappointed at the lack of engagement on behalf of university executives in regards to sexual violence on campus. Noud says that promises made to the Women’s Collective and the RNA team on behalf of the Vice Chancellor have yet to been actioned, and the decision of the university to withhold yearly data about assault and harassment on campus undermines pledges of support made by executives over the last few weeks.

‘It appears to me that these statements were made in an attempt to placate activists and students and give the impressions that the university is committed to change, in the hope that these promises will be quickly forgotten,’ says Noud.

‘The RNA team are incredibly valuable and myself and the Women’s Collective are grateful for the hard work they have put in to combating rape culture on campus, but proper actions committed to changing the culture of Macquarie University, and support for students, must come from the university executives as well.’

It’s clear that student activists are streaks ahead when it comes to the discourse surrounding sexual harassment and assault and will continue to drive the changes needed to rectify a historically tragic situation where universities prioritise their brand and profits over student safety and wellbeing.

Student activists will not be placated, and student journalists will not be silenced.

Our work is far from done.


This article was censored from the print version of Grapeshot Issue 6 by the university. For support in dealing with sexual harassment and assault, head to www.mq.edu.au/respect.