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New data shows widespread sexual harassment at Australian universities

One in five (21%) students were sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016 and 1.6% of students were sexually assaulted in a university setting on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016, according to a landmark report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities released today by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

“The unavoidable conclusion of the data we have gathered from more than 30,000 university students across all 39 Australian universities is that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities,” said Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

“We know that sexual assault and sexual harassment have a devastating physical, emotional and psychological impact on individuals. More than 1800 people made a submission to the Commission, sharing their stories about the ways their lives, studies and mental health have been impacted by their experiences.”

The Change the course report comes after years of work by students and advocates, including the Hunting Ground Australia Project who provided seed funding for the project. All 39 universities, through peak body Universities Australia, also supported the Commission in undertaking this work.

The national survey was the largest of its kind ever conducted in Australia. The survey found that sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring to varying degrees across most areas of university life.

“Almost a third of sexual harassment reported in the survey occurred on university grounds or in teaching spaces, while one in five of those who were sexually assaulted said that this occurred at a university or residence social event,” said Commissioner Jenkins.

“We found that college settings are a particular area of concern, particularly for women who were four times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted in this setting.”

Across all university settings, the Commission found that women were three times as likely as men to be sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016 and almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016.

“While anybody can experience sexual assault or sexual harassment, it is clear from the data that women at university experience these behaviours at disproportionately higher rates than men,” Commissioner Jenkins observed.

“This adds weight to the body of evidence that highlights disturbing rates of sexual violence against women in Australia.”

Commissioner Jenkins noted that the report also includes important findings on high rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse students.

The Commission’s research revealed that most students who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed at university in 2015 and 2016 did not make a formal report or complaint to their university.

“Only 6% of students surveyed thought their university was currently doing enough to provide clear direction on sexual harassment procedures and support services,” said Commissioner Jenkins.

“Only 4% thought this was the case in relation to sexual assault.”

Commissioner Jenkins also stressed the importance of ensuring that survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment are given the support they need.

“The evidence is clear that universities need to do more to prevent such abuse from occurring and to build a culture that responds appropriately to these incidents by supporting victims and sanctioning perpetrators.”

The report includes nine recommendations on areas for action and reform – eight of which are directed at universities and one aimed at university colleges.

“The fact that all 39 universities committed to the national survey is a positive indication of their desire to take action in response to this report,” said Commissioner Jenkins.

“By implementing the Commission’s recommendations Australia’s universities can contribute to changing the national culture to one that does not tolerate sexual assault or sexual harassment in any form. I am confident that universities are up to the challenge and I am committed to working with students and universities to assist in this process however I can.”

The survey was delivered by Roy Morgan. The Commission sought and received ethics approval for the national survey from the Human Research Ethics Committee at the University of New South Wales.

Change the course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities is available on the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

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