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Sexual assault on campus

Women feel more scared on campus than ever. Is your uni doing enough to protect you?

By Kate Leaver

Naomi knew the stats: that 70 percent of rape survivors know their attacker, and one in six university students experience sexual violence. But it wasn’t until she was trapped under the full body weight of a musician she quite liked, that she really knew.

Telling Cosmo her story for the first time, it’s clear Naomi is still trying to shake the memory of that night. And more than anything, to make peace with the fact that she invited her attacker into her home and into her bed.

“We were just talking, and he moved on top of me. I was crying, but he didn’t stop,” she says. “He even said “we don’t have to have sex,” but he was kissing me so forcefully I couldn’t move. I didn’t have a choice at the time, at all.”

What happened to Naomi was indisputably rape, but even now she struggles with that term. “It’s such a powerful word; it’s so hard to use it when you talk about yourself. It took me a whole year to realise that I didn’t give consent that night. The guy wasn’t even a hoodie-wearing crime show character; he was just a normal person. And that’s part of why I’ve kept it to myself - because it felt so mundane.”

Naomi’s case is being repeated on campuses across the country, says the National Union of Students (NUS). They recently interviewed 1500 female students, and more than 1000 said they’d had an unwanted sexual experience at university. 31 percent (465 women) said they’d had sex without giving consent.

Back in 2010, the Talk About It survey produced 30 recommendations for stopping sexual abuse on campus – things like better lighting and free shuttle buses at night, access to specialised counselling, video surveillance, and security escorts for female students. Not a single university has implemented them all – and the 2013 survey indicates women feel more scared than ever.

Preliminary numbers released exclusively to Cosmo indicate that while 75 percent of women feel safe on campus during the day, just 11 percent feel safe at night. Mikaela Wangmann, Women’s Officer at NUS, says universities are simply not doing enough. “A lot run ‘safety on campus’ campaigns but they’re fundamentally flawed because they just hand out rape whistles to girls and tell them to look after their drunk friends, rather than educating them properly – and teaching men sexual ethics.”

Students at residential colleges are often rounded up for brief lectures on alcohol and consent during O-Week, but the alarming rates of sexual assault there (high profile cases have been reported widely by the media, including Cosmo) prove those sessions are ineffective. The NUS will release an updated Safe Universities Blueprint document later this year – you can check on the results at nuswomens.wordpress.com.

Report hard

The first question most assault survivors are asked is Why didn’t you tell anyone? According to the NUS, 7.8 percent of sexual assault victims report the experience to their university, and just 4.9 percent to the police. It’s a deeply personal, complex moral decision – one Amelia, 22, knows all too well.

She was assaulted by an older, married friend in her Sydney college bedroom when she was 18. She’d passed out in the student common room and woke hours later, with no clue how she got there, flashes of the assault, and her attacker sleeping next to her. She runs workshops for other women on domestic violence as part of her law degree, but Amelia struggles to accept her own case. She articulates why so many survivors choose not to report their case: “The only reason I’d ever go to the police would be for the statistical value… and that’s a big thing to do just for the stats. And I know nothing will ever come of it,” she told Cosmo.“It was only a few months ago that I was ready to say the words “he raped me” to my Victims Services counsellor, so I just couldn’t deal with telling anyone else.”

That fear is so common. Sally-Anne Jovic, Women’s Officer at Monash University, reckons it’s because we don’t make survivors feel safe about coming forward. “We don’t live in a society where you can talk about sexual assault with your peers. You can’t say “this person assaulted me” and knowthat you’ll be believed,” she says. “With high profile cases like Jill Meagher’s, at least we’re starting to discuss the issues openly, but we’ll need to overhaul how we as a society look at assault before we can really fix the situation for victims.”

To demand safety at your university, head to www.unistudent.com.au

If you’re distressed or you need to speak to someone about your experience, contact the National Sexual Assault Counselling Service on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au