The region’s Centre Against Sexual Assault has backed the idea of an independent, expert-led taskforce into sexual assault and harassment at university campuses and colleges.
Pressure is mounting on the federal government to create a national body to track, assess and publicly report on university and residences’ measures to prevent, and improve responses to sexual violence.
Fair Agenda, End Rape on Campus Australia, National Union of Students and The Hunting Ground Australia Project are petitioning Education Minister Simon Birmingham to establish the described taskforce.
Establishing an independent body was also among End Rape on Campus Australia’s recommendations in its latest report, which was published on Monday.
Loddon Campaspe CASA chief executive Kate Wright said the taskforce was a great idea.
“But they need to not reinvent the wheel,” she said.
She said the proposed taskforce would need to build on existing services.
The Red Zone report noted an increase in demand for help from sexual assault services nationwide during and immediately after O-Week events.
“In recent years, Australian university ‘Orientation Weeks’ have been highlighted as a time of pronounced vulnerability, particularly for new students,” the report states.
“Sexual assault, hazing and excessive alcohol consumption have led sexual assault advocates to dub this week ‘The Red Zone’.”
The End Rape on Campus Australia report details case studies from 12 Australian universities. La Trobe was not among those specifically mentioned.
Ms Wright said LCCASA had experienced an increase in demand for services, though it was difficult to determine whether it was tied to the start of the academic year.
She said people were contacting the centre to report sexual assault and sexual harassment, as well as to seek advice.
Though the region’s CASA works with La Trobe University, it does not have a permanent presence on the campus.
The Bendigo campus differs from the campus in the Melbourne suburb of Bundoora in this respect.
La Trobe University equity and diversity manager Shannon Kerrigan said there were a number of reasons for this, including the size of the service and the proximity of services.
Three La Trobe counsellors are based at the Bendigo campus.
The campus is roughly five kilometres from the LCCASA premises on Bridge Street.
Speak Up, La Trobe says
Ms Kerrigan said the university provided a range of options to support students who had experienced sexual assault and/or sexual harassment.
They range from residential support services to the online Speak Up initiative, which encourages people to report or seek advice in relation to unacceptable behaviour such as harassment, discrimination and violence.
Speak Up is staffed from Monday to Friday between 9am – 5pm. It is not a critical response service and the university recommends people call Triple Zero or campus security for emergency assistance.
Ms Kerrigan said students were also encouraged to seek help from LCCASA or police.
It is not known how many of the students at the Bendigo campus have experienced sexual harassment or assault.
But data released by the Australian Human Rights Commission last year revealed almost a quarter of La Trobe University students were sexually harassed on campus in 2016, while 1.7 per cent were sexually assaulted from 2015-16.
Inappropriate staring or leering, sexually suggestive comments or jokes and intrusive questions about a victim’s private life or appearance were among the most common forms of harassment.
Many of the La Trobe students surveyed said they did not seek support because they did not believe what they had experienced was serious enough, while 15 per cent said they did not know where to turn to for help.
La Trobe University has implemented an online training program called Consent Matters to help students understand what constitutes consent and respectful conduct.
Ms Kerrigan said the course was compulsory for all students living in accommodation services, and optional for the rest of the student cohort.
She did not believe O-Week to be associated with a particular increase in reports of sexual harassment or assault at the campus or in accommodation services.
Cultural issues identified
The Red Zone Report found ‘the social structure of the residential colleges creates the conditions that enable and propagate rampant abuse and misogyny’.
“Specifically, the common residential college culture that generates abusive behaviour is often dominated by a clique of socially powerful older students who acquire the formal and informal leadership of the college student body,” the report stated.
“In the name of group-building, tradition and cohesion, these older students then initiate new entrants (‘freshers’) into the college culture through hazing rituals which serve to both humiliate the new students (thus increasing the social status of the older students) and create a ‘price of entry’ into the college community.
“This creates an atmosphere where older students can exploit and abuse younger students, both for sexual as well as simply sadistic purposes.”
The report was also critical of ‘typical college culture’ – “an immature model of Australian masculinity characterised by overt displays of heterosexuality, larrikinism, participation in contact sports and beer drinking.’
“The culture normalises the violation of privacy and bodily integrity in various ways that mainstream Australian culture would find unacceptable – for instance, the drinking of dangerous amounts of alcohol, urine, vomit or faeces, or the undertaking of dangerous stunts and challenges that frequently result in injury.
“This normalisation of self-abuse by the dominant culture, whether by design or accident, ultimately blurs the line around what is and is not abusive conduct by others. This, in turn, makes speaking out against that abuse much more difficult,” the report stated.
Call for action
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins on Monday urged universities to continue the work needed to prevent sexual harassment and assaults on campus.
She said she was encouraged that all 39 Australian universities had accepted the majority of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Change the Course report, which was released in August last year.
La Trobe was among the 32 universities to accept all nine of the report’s recommendations.
“However it’s clear there is still a long way to go,” the commissioner said.
“We must be proactive in changing the disturbing and unacceptable attitudes and behaviours that are being reported.”
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If you, or someone you know is in immediate or imminent danger on campus contact police on triple zero (0 000 from office phones) then campus security on extension 2222 or 9479 2222.
Counselling services are available at the Bendigo campus on 5444 7223.
For support with recent or past experiences of sexual assault or abuse, call LCCASA on 5441 0430 or the Victorian Sexual Assault Crisis Line after hours on 1800 806 292.