Words || Belinda Ramsay
In August, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released its landmark ‘Change the Course’ report into sexual harassment and sexual assault figures at Australian universities. In particular, the survey results revealed alarming statistics about the number of university students experiencing sexual harassment on public transport, with an average of 22 per cent of respondents stating they were harassed while travelling to or from university in the past year. However, these instances were even more prevalent among Macquarie University students, with 27 per cent of respondents stating their most recent incident of sexual harassment occurred during their university commute. Submissions to the Report described a range of sexual harassment experienced by students on public transport, including staring, leering, unwanted physical contact, and offensive comments of a sexual nature.
Reading the Report, I was taken back to an incident I experienced last year on my commute to university. Like any good student, I was preparing for a full day of classes by hastily skimming through my textbook, attempting in vain to finish a week’s worth of readings in 45 minutes. It was as the train passed over the rickety Hawkesbury River bridge and back into internet reception (a moment all students from the Central Coast know well) that a man approached from the other end of the carriage, squeezing into the seat beside me. ‘What’re you reading?’ he asked, leaning across me to examine the pages of my book. I shrugged him off and continued reading, hoping that by ignoring him he would take the hint and go away. It didn’t work, and he proceeded to strike up an entirely one-sided conversation, filled with unrequited compliments and personal questions about what university I went to, what I was studying, and what station I was getting off at. Eventually he realised I wasn’t going to respond, so he stood up, called me a bitch, and left.
What is most surprising about the incident was just how unsurprising it is. When I have told this story to friends from university, instead of being met with shock, the response from other female-identifying students is invariably the same: a swapping of stories, counter-tactics that they have found helpful, or an endless list of women they know who have experienced a similar situation. Sexual harassment on public transport is at crisis levels; particularly for women and gender-diverse persons, with the report revealing double the number of female identifying students reporting experiences of sexual harassment than male identifying students. While public transport services are clearly not within the control of universities, the AHRC acknowledged in the report that these statistics were still significant “because travel to and from university is considered an important part of students’ university experience.”
The main issue with public transport is that it is, by its very nature, conducive to persons committing sexual harassment and sexual assault, with the confined and transitory aspect of trains and buses inadvertently creating spaces where perpetrators are guaranteed close interaction with other passengers. Perpetrators are emboldened in public transport spaces, where it’s often difficult for targets to get away, and the enclosed spaces and crowding offering proximity and anonymity. In this regard, the results of the AHRC report reinforce what is already known about sexual harassment and sexual assault on public transport:
there is little social or legal risk or accountability for this transgressive behaviour.
However, it’s important to note that 57 per cent of students who stated they had been sexually harassed on public transport said that the perpetrator was a student from their own university, with a further 11 per cent of perpetrators being students from another university. This result challenges the assumption of anonymity, and further highlights the importance of university engagement in the prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault in public transport spaces, particularly where the perpetrator is a university student.
While the obvious alternative to public transport is electing to drive, the steep financial burden of purchasing a parking permit, on top of the difficulty of even being able to find a free parking spot on campus, creates significant barriers for students who would prefer the safety and comfort of driving their own car. This leaves them with no other option than to catch public transport; and while usage of these systems results in significant environmental, economic and social benefits, it may be at a personal cost to the individual. Students may avoid travelling on the bus or train at certain times or feel it necessary to avoid public transport altogether. This may result in the student missing classes, having limited timetable options and not being able to participate fully in university life and on-campus opportunities. Additionally, the AHRC report revealed that some students said their experience of sexual harassment or sexual assault was so debilitating that they withdrew from university altogether, affecting their future access to employment and education.
The results of the AHRC report expose how universities can no longer claim to be immune to the issues faced by the broader community around sexual harassment. At the release of the ‘Change the Course’ Report, Vice Chancellor Professor Bruce Dowton commented that “One incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault is one too many. Both are unacceptable, and as a community we should take action to ensure no one experiences either.”
As a stakeholder in improving awareness and implementing change around the issues of sexual harassment and assault, these results mark a significant opportunity for Macquarie University to demonstrate their commitment to taking these statistics seriously.
The university must examine the ingrained gender stereotypes that shape the harassing behaviours that are experienced by students, as well as develop stronger partnerships with public transport authorities to improve the situation of sexual harassment and sexual assault in public transport spaces.
Sexual assault support services
Campus Wellbeing – (02) 9850 7497
Universities Australia Sexual Assault Hotline – 1800 572 224
1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732
NSW Rape Crisis Centre – (02) 9819 6565