Image description: A well-lit close-up of a small white chess piece. In the back, on either side, are two shadowed, large, dark chess pieces.

 

CW: Rape, sexual violence, hazing, drinks-spiking.

 

By Sabine Singh

 

Females operate in a different context that can be completely invisible to their male peers. An undercover network with codenames to politely exit tense situations; long phone calls while you wait at the bus stop; keys between fingers; bringing friends to the bathroom; getting walked to your car; and monitoring drinks. Parties can become an exhausting period of self-surveillance – knowing that coercion can occur gradually, framed as an extension of flirtation; knowing that interactions can go wrong, extremely quickly.

 

Women on campus need to navigate this apparent dichotomy—between the exceptionally abhorrent and the perniciously gradualist aspects—of abuse. Consent is not just “no means no”. The concept of consent can be quite complicated. The narrative “she never said no” is an example of the oversimplification. Even when consent is requested, answering with an objection can jeopardise safety even further.

 

The National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that one in five students are sexually harassed in university settings, including on-campus, student accommodation, and college social events. Approximately two hundred sexual assaults occur within a university setting a week.

 

Part of me can’t shake the pervasiveness of ‘rape culture’—its intense visibility during tertiary education, considering the heightened likelihood for assault in the typical university cohort age, ranging from eighteen to thirty. Females aged eighteen to twenty-four experience sexual violence double the national rate. Additionally, there is a higher prevalence of assault for students who embody oppressed identities, including, but not limited to those who identify as LGBTQI+; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander; and have a physical or cognitive impairment. This ties into structural issues, as universities are still known to be patriarchal, Eurocentric, and elitist institutions. These hierarchies can overtly and covertly jeopardise the safety of students, regardless of their conduct.

 

The university setting can present numerous unique conditions that foster an environment that makes the perpetration of sexual assault more prevalent, and even normalised. These conditions include “hazing practices,” which are consequential to alcohol consumption at high levels or spiking drinks, and the associated “hilarity” of humiliating and degrading acts. Other times, it is independent of any form of socialising, where going to the bathroom has inherited dangers. Anna Hush argued that sexual violence at universities has operated for as long as the institutions have existed. The irksome ‘no means no’ slap on the wrist undersells the gravity of the harm.

 

Can universities absolve responsibility from sexual violence? Should any university even be the focal point?

 

The core purpose of the tertiary education system is to teach critical thinking skills, so I can’t think of a better atmosphere to educate young people on sexual violence, consent, and bodily autonomy. Sexual violence actively hinders access to education.

 

Our university has not been silent in countering sexual violence. Action has been taken to an extent, seen in the establishment of UWA Safer Communities Working Group (lead in partnership with the Student Guild); and the launch of a “management toolkit” and the “Step Up Bystander” event. These are substantial accomplishments in many regards. However, one-off programs can be ineffective mechanisms in actually changing entrenched attitudes towards sexual violence. They are also voluntary, and can be avoided.

 

There is no “type” of man who commits sexual assault. Regardless, it can feel like only particular profiles can contest accusations against them more effectively. I feel like every rumour is rebuked – until the alleged and accused, become confirmed and convicted.

 

It is not until hearsay becomes definitive and eCourt hyperlinks are shared, that assaults and victimhood gain traction as points of discussion in university settings. However, discussion surrounding sexual violence can be unproductive, focussing too heavily on the soiled honour of the perpetrators. It lacks gentle compassion, or an aggressive demand for more comprehensive trauma-informed and rights-based education to delve into the multifaceted nature of consent and coercion. We must be mindful that survivors have to face our opinions at university, especially after their traumatic experience becomes public knowledge. Incorrect reactions, even with good intentions, can be detrimental. Rumours propagate branches of harm.

 

Combatting sexual assault is a shared responsibility. Everyone has a part to play.
Everyone has the right to be safe.

 

Useful Resources

On campus:

UWA security 0438 739 744

Security emergency number of 6488 2222

(You can ask for a security guard to walk you to your car/gym/bus stop, nothing is too trivial)

https://www.uwa.edu.au/students/Need-help/Sexual-harassment-and-assault

 

Law enforcement:

Police 131 444

Police Sex Assault Squad on (+61 8) 9428 1600 or [email protected].

 

Other:

Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) – (+61 8) 6458 1828 or 1800 199 888.