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The Issue of Sexual Violence in Australian University Students

01 May 2024 - Dr Reena Sarkar

University students can be abused by persons with whom they are acquainted and most often in relationships of trust and/or authority in a university context. Recognising and responding appropriately to student disclosure of sexual violence at educational institutes is urgently needed to mitigate the significant adverse mental and behavioural outcomes of such conduct. 

The 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) was an independent survey conducted by the Social Research Centre for Universities Australia. Conducted online in September-October 2021, the nationally representative survey measured the experiences of over 43,819 students across 39 universities.

The NSSS found many university students had experienced sexual harassment or assaulted in a university setting. One in six (16.1%) students have been sexually harassed, and one in twenty (4.5%) sexually assaulted since starting university.

Non-binary students (22.4%), transgender students (14.7%) and female students (10.5%) were harassed the most when compared with male students (3.9%). Of those who experienced sexual assault, 3.2% were transgender students, 2.2% non-binary students and 1.4% female students. 

Younger students aged 18 to 21 years were most likely to have experienced sexual harassment (11.7%) or assault (1.9%) in the past 12 months, compared with those aged 22 to 24 years (8.4%; 1.1%), and 25 to 34 years or older (5.5%; 0.5%). 

Students with a disability (13.7%) were more likely to have been harassed or assaulted (13.7%; 2.4%) than other students (7%, 0.9%). The study also found that post graduate students were more likely to be sexually harassed than undergraduate students. 

Most common incident locations were on-campus (general campus areas, university lecture theatres, computer labs, libraries), during clubs and societies events, and in student accommodation or residences. Postgraduate students were more likely to experience incidents during professional placements or in administrative staff offices. 

There were a range of incidents reported, including: catcalling, receiving sexualised comments, inappropriate touching, stalking, groping, kissing without permission, being ‘up skirted’, and sexual assaults.

Perpetrators were identified as fellow students, university staff (lecturers, tutors, research, or academic supervisors, non-academic staff).

Regarding reporting and support seeking, only 3% and 5.6% of affected students made formal complaints to the university regarding the harassment or assault (respectively). Of the students who had made a formal report, 18.9% stated that the investigation had been referred to the police. Students also had mixed experiences about overall satisfaction with the response process. Whilst sexual harassment redressals gathered a 41.3% satisfaction report, only 27.9% of sexual assault complaints were met with favourable student responses.  

It was also found that only 16.8% of those reporting sexual harassment and 25.5% of students sexually assaulted in a university context sought additional support /counselling within universities. 

The main barriers when reporting sexual harassment and assault were lack of awareness amongst students and lengthy processing times. More than half of the respondents were unaware of the formal reporting process for harassment or assault.

Students called for transparency on reporting processes and university collaborations with victim/survivor led organisations to reinforce universities’ stand on prevention of sexual violence. Students said an inclusive environment could be created with campaigns encouraging positive views of sexuality and sex. 

Addressing sexual violence in and outside campus is a crucial concern for ensuring the health and well-being of young Australians.

Designed for health practitioners, unit 3 of Monash University’s Sexual Violence Response Training Course covers responding to sexual violence in at-risk patients, including adolescents. The Training Course is at no cost to participants. 

The Training is funded by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services as an initiative under the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032. It equips healthcare professionals with skills to recognise and respond appropriately to adult disclosures of sexual violence. 

For more information visit https://www.monash.edu/medicine/sphpm/study/professional-education/responding-to-sexual-violence

 

References

Nisbet, L., Halse, G., van Esbroek, E., Heywood, W., Powell, A. & Myers, P. (2022). National Student Safety Survey: Qualitative research on experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault among university students in 2021. Melbourne: The Social Research Centre. 

Heywood, W., Myers, P., Powell, A., Meikle, G., & Nguyen, D. (2022). National Student Safety Survey: Report on the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault among university students in 2021. Melbourne: The Social Research Centre

Dr Reena Sarkar
Dr Reena Sarkar
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