Universities and colleges need to change their culture and policies around sexual assault to protect their students.
Sexual assaults on campus
Disturbing trends have been revealed about the frequency of sexual assaults in university settings – especially at live-in colleges – and it’s far worse than most people realise. With victim blaming and reporting not being adequately acted upon, a dark culture continues to grow unchecked on campuses across Australia.
A national report on sexual assault and sexual harassment was undertaken at all 39 Australian universities in 2017 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The findings were alarming and highlight the issue of sexual abuse being more prevalent at universities than the wider community.
Since the release of the report, some universities and colleges are still not adequately responding to curb the situations and stamp out behaviour that contribute to these assaults. There are also reports that victims of sexual assault who report sexual violence on campuses and colleges aren’t receiving enough support.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual behaviour that makes a person feel threatened, scared, or uncomfortable. It can range in severity from being shown indecent images to the penetration of a person’s body, commonly known as rape.
If someone is forced into sexual acts without their consent, is exposed to something sexual that makes them feel uncomfortable, or is touched when they don’t want to be, then they may be a victim of sexual assault.
What is consent and why does it matter?
Consent is an agreement between parties to engage in sexual activity. Consent is required for any activity from touching to kissing, to bodily penetration, and must be an informed decision.
Consent should be given enthusiastically, must be clearly stated, and can be retracted at any point throughout the encounter. An intoxicated person cannot give consent.
Sexual activity without consent is against the law and can cause serious psychological harm to victims.
What do I do if I have been sexually assaulted?
If you have been sexually assaulted, you should consider reporting it to police. Victims often feel a deep sense of shame about what has happened to them even though it was in no way their fault. If you are not ready to report the assault to the police, you could consider confiding in a counsellor, your GP or a support service, whoever you feel most comfortable with.
If you are considering not reporting the sexual assault, remember that your courage to take action could stop other people from experiencing what you did
I was sexually assaulted at a university event - what do I do?
If you have been sexually assaulted and feel like your university’s culture contributed to what happened to you, your first steps should still be reporting the incident to police, a support service, your GP or a counsellor and the university. There are many services like End Rape on Campus and 1800 RESPECT counselling organisations specifically run as safe places for support and disclosure.
If the university is not taking what happened to you seriously and you are suffering psychologically you can consider calling Shine Lawyers National Abuse Law Team. The team will listen to you and look into how the university has dealt with your complaint and whether or not this has contributed to your continued pain and suffering. All reports of sexual assault should be met with decisive action and a university setting is no exception.
What steps should my university take when I report being sexually assaulted on campus?
If the sexual assault happened in a university setting, you should report the incident to the university or college as well as to the police.
The university will need to determine quickly if the perpetrator needs to be removed while further investigations are carried out to protect you and other students from harm. Support services should be offered to you to ensure you receive the counselling assistance you require.
Your university should be fully co-operating with a police investigation. If a police investigation is not launched, the university has a duty of care to take your disclosure seriously, take decisive action, and carry out their own investigation.
Universities Australia has outlined the following process that universities and colleges should be following when responding to a report of sexual assault. These include:
- Clearly state that the wellbeing of the victim is the university’s priority;
- Automatically refer the student to counselling;
- Minimise the amount of times the student has to recount the traumatic experience;
- Streamline arrangements for academic consideration;
- Offer multiple ways to make a formal report, including letting the victim know that there is an option to report to the police and respect their decision if they decide to proceed;
- Clearly communicate what the university’s formal reporting processes are;
- Offer an interpreter for international students.
Each university should have a publicly available policy in place to respectfully and compassionately deal with these incidents. These steps should be undertaken with care and the university should listen to the victim and believe them without passing judgement. The university should also act to protect the victim’s confidentiality and privacy.
However, research shows that far too many Australian universities are trying to sweep sexual assault under the carpet. This is not good enough and the only way this culture will change is if victims do not give up fighting for justice.
If you feel like your university is not taking its duty of care seriously, you can consider contacting a personal injury lawyer.
What is the difference between a criminal and civil case?
The goal of a criminal case is to have the perpetrator of a crime charged by police and have them face criminal proceedings. This means that a person who is sexually assaulted must report the crime to the police in order to pursue criminal justice. Once a report has been made, police can conduct a criminal investigation into the matter before proceeding to court.
A civil claim is usually against the organisation who had a duty of care towards the victim, such as a university or college. A civil claim can help a survivor of sexual violence access compensation for injuries that may include emotional damages, medical expenses, and other remedies including a letter of apology.
A person who has been sexually assaulted may be able to proceed with both civil and criminal claims. Find out more about the difference between criminal and civil law in Australia here.
I have waited a while to report a sexual assault - is there a time limit to report sexual assault?
Time limits of three years do exist in some states to make a civil claim but there are exceptions. Some students are attending university at 17 years old. If someone under the age of 18 is sexually abused then no time limits apply.
The sooner you can come forward, the better. However, there is no time limit for reporting your assault to police. If you have been sexually assaulted, regardless of how long ago it was, we encourage you to reach out for legal advice to see if we can support you to pursue justice.
Why is reporting sexual assault important?
Shine Lawyers is currently supporting a number of victims of university sexual assault to seek justice. It is our hope that as more victims come forward to report these crimes, more will be done to support victims and to address the cultural problems that are contributing to these assaults on campuses.