Readers should be advised that this article contains discussions surrounding sexual assault and harassment on campus.

A wave of fresh controversy is currently surrounding university colleges over east, as the recently released ‘The Red Zone’ report from advocacy group End Rape on Campus sheds further light on an institutional culture of hazing, misogyny and harassment. With a spate of awful news headlines in recent months and an increasing call for action from voices as high up as the Australian Human Rights Commission, it’s pertinent to get an understanding of what the hell is going on and how West Australian universities stack up in comparison.

To the outsider, college campus culture can be a world unto itself. A near religious devotion to learning chants, participating in games and getting swept up in the factionalism is all supposed to make you feel like you’re a part of a tight knit university community. For the many international students who reside at colleges, this is potentially their first exposure to Australia and their first chance to make Australian mates; for the groups of teens who have just left school, it’s the perfect time to branch out and forge new connections. To feel like you immediately have a group supporting you can be an awesome, welcoming experience when you first arrive amongst the chaos of university; and it’s why many college residents, both domestic and international, speak highly of the experience.

But this insidious college culture can go too far. Way, waaaaay too far.

The eponymous ‘Red Zone’ refers to O-Week, the period of time during which first years settle into college. However, this week is reportedly accompanied by intense, violent and often bizarre hazing rituals. At the University of Sydney, St Paul’s College, Wesley College and St. Andrew’s are the subject of the most intense scrutiny. Reports allege incidents of bullying and intense drinking activities, all the way to sexual assault and disgusting behaviour involving bodily fluids and dead fish. Some of these same behaviours don’t even exist in the realm of debauchery, but are better described as some kind of sick boot camp.

Pelican received access to the report on Monday night, after a 24 hour media embargo was lifted. The report reveals how the social structure of residential colleges enables and propagates rampant abuse and misogyny. In the words of the authors Nina Funnell, Anna Hush and Sharna Bremner, the culture of colleges ‘celebrates an immature model of Australian masculinity’ and ‘normalises the violation of privacy and bodily integrity’ which makes speaking out against abuse particularly difficult. According to the report, such a culture cannot reform itself since ‘those who hold social power and influence in the college student community gain a great benefit from the status quo’. As a result, improved oversight of student residences, counselling service provision at student residences, and transparency and open dialogue around college culture were key recommendations provided by the report to improve the toxic culture around colleges. The report also endorsed changes in government legislation including reviewing the legislative framework governing residential colleges, criminalising hazing, and establishing a government taskforce into sexual assault and harassment in colleges.

It’s important to recognise that this is by no means a new phenomenon. Hush previously wrote in Junkee that evidence of these issues extends back as early as 1930. The report expands on this theme, citing incidences of hazing rituals, sexual assault, and even rape and murder that have historically occurred on campuses. Last year, it was reported that one in four women at USyd colleges experienced sexual harassment. In the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the issue, it also highlighted that while college residents made up only 7% of students participating in their survey, they represented 34% of those who had been assaulted. As for UWA, 51% of university students were sexually harassed last year, with 28% experiencing sexual harassment on campus. ‘The universities in Western Australia certainly don’t receive as much media attention as those on the east coast’, said Hush after being contacted for comment; ‘but from our research they’re definitely not exempt from the kinds of toxic college culture we’ve seen around the country.’

In between then and now, there has been a massive push for colleges to get their game together and make things better for O-Week 2018. In particular, the AHRC report highlighted several recommendations for improving sexual assault on campus, including endorsing independent, expert-led reviews of factors that contribute to sexual assault and harassment on residential colleges and university residences. Pelican talked to various members of the UWA community to investigate what kind of changes College Row has made since the publishing of the AHRC report in August 2017, so to ensure its residents don’t have the same experience as their east coast peers.  

UWA Guild President Megan Lee emphasised that the Guild is working with the uni to rework their sexual assault policies to make sure they’re ‘survivor informed and student led.’ The centrepiece of this partnership is an independent audit of College Row; a process which was a central recommendation from 2017’s Respect. Now. Always. report. ‘Pending the outcome of the audit, we’ll know more’, Lee said. ‘But from what I know, I’ve [spoken] at various residential training days which cover sexual assault, consent and how to deal with disclosures.’

In addition to this audit, Lee emphasised the Guild’s investment in improved campus lighting, supplementary online and face-to-face resources and consent training modules, noting that ‘[these initiatives] will take some time… to roll out effectively and appropriately, but it’s something we’re working on over my term.’ When asked of her confidence that UWA, College Row and the Guild were working to change university attitudes towards sexual assault, Lee compared the current situation to previous. ‘This kind of thing wouldn’t really make an appearance at all; and now for a lot of the colleges, it’s a huge focus of their training for residential advisors and incoming students.’

Lee’s sentiments were echoed in a statement from Roshni Kaila, Women’s Officer for the UWA Guild. ‘The push for this issue to be tackled has primarily been led by the Guild in recent years, however the university has demonstrated a commitment to a response that meets the severity of the issue’, she said. ‘The ongoing university reform includes a Safety on Campus Working Group developing an action plan to address all areas of safety and security at UWA. Most importantly, the Guild will always stand in support of survivors of sexual harassment and assault and always ensure true justice is sought.’ Kaila and Lee’s statements were further reflected in an email from Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater which was sent out to all students and staff.

Hush remains sceptical of claims of university intervention and concrete social change based upon her previous experiences. ‘Universities and colleges are all quick to proclaim that they ‘take this issue very seriously’ and are doing the best they can – but the response of these institutions so far has been very disappointing. UWA refused to comply with a freedom of information request about sexual assault statistics lodged by Channel 7 – so clearly the university isn’t committed to transparency and accountability.’

Chris Massey, Director of UWA Student Life, spoke with Pelican to offer a perspective on what proactive steps the college staff and the university are taking to address this issue. ‘I’ve never heard of a hazing culture at WA colleges, ever; I’ve never had an incident where it has been as a consequence of a hazing tradition, or even a tradition for that matter,’ Massey told us. He noted that University Hall had a dry welcome dinner and that O-Weeks have changed a lot since 2012, thanks to strong student leadership and collaboration with college administrations. In addition, he cited some positive work done over O-Week included combining existing orientation first aid training with new online modules regarding consent matters and disclosure. Massey stated, ‘these aren’t stand alone as has been reported, rather they complement the existing training run within the colleges.’

Massey identifies that colleges have been making an effort to change practices and procedures and states, ‘I can’t see any reason colleges would go on a different tangent [to UWA] given their incentive to provide students with the best campus experience and they’ve shown that already by helping fund some of the external audit and the online modules among other things as a collective group.’ Massey’s summation of the work the colleges are doing is that it can always improve but ‘it’s all heading in the right direction; it’s been within the right realm for some time. This report will help show where some gaps exist, and we hope that students get involved to continue to improve and allow us to continue to get better.’

Getting, and doing, better is a consistent theme. In light of The Red Zone report’s release, Pelican and other student publications need to do better than trivaliasing this experience through satire or wit. In our recent print issue, we ran, “Letters to Freshers,” which was a lolsy take on what new college residents could expect from O Week. We now realise this piece makes us look complicit in a culture that is incredibly toxic and harmful, despite this never being our intention. We realise it looked like we were condoning binge drinking and insane partying. This was never our intention. We promise to do better from here on in.

Mainstream media needs to do better than publishing sensationalist headlines which get forgotten by the next news cycle. Colleges need to be better than, as Hush puts it, ‘just tinkering around the edges’ of any major changes to rules or regulations. For victims of this culture, the next few weeks are going to be fucking hard. Traumatic events will be talked about on television, in newspapers, on the radio by people who haven’t experienced them, and the onus will fall upon survivors to call out fucked up behaviour. In response, we are all responsible for creating safer conversations, safer environments and safer spaces, instead of remaining complicit. Reassessing and reflecting is uncomfortable and difficult, but this is how toxic culture works; you can’t see it, escape it, or more importantly change it, until you’re aware of it. It means confronting past mistakes about things said (or published); remembering times we should have noticed, times we were bystanders, or times we should have listened to a friend more seriously. Take that as a new UWA motto – beyond seek wisdom, pursue impossible and all the rest  – do better.

This was a joint report by the Pelican Editorial team. 

If any of the content of this article has brought up any issues for you, remember that  UWA Counsellors are available by calling 6488 2423 or by visiting the first floor of the Student Central Building. Guild Student Assist Officers are available by calling 6488 2292 or emailing [email protected]. An online complaint can be lodged here. Further information about UWA’s sexual assault and harassment policies and support services can be found here. Should you feel unsafe on campus at any point, you can also call UWA Security 24/7 on 6488 2222.