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“I JUST FELT DIRTY”: What forces sexual assault victims at universities to stay silent

The eerie grounds of UNSW at night

By Chantelle Rodrigues and Adelle Glance-Wilson

She sat in the lecture room surrounded by familiar faces but there was one that was all too familiar. She could sense his presence without even turning around. Closing her eyes, it all came back to her in an instant. Her ripped dress. Her bloodied face. His chilling laughter and the feeling of his hands creating goose bumps as they slid under her dress.

“You should dress like that all the time for me,” his words echoed eerily in her ears.

Crying her eyes out in the middle of the night, she felt unsafe. She didn’t know who she could talk to. The last place she expected to be attacked was at her university. He was supposed to be her friend but he became her attacker. Her university was supposed to be considered a safe ground, yet it failed her. She felt dirty. Disgusting. Embarrassed. She thought no one would believe her. She realised she had no idea who to tell and where to turn to at university.

She decided not to report the assault.

Why didn’t she?

Jessica*, a current University of Technology student, is one of the many who have experienced sexual assault on campus and chose not to report it, silenced by the stigma surrounding this issue.

Yet it appears that there is a lack of knowledge and communication between the university and its students, making victims like Jessica, ‘apprehensive’ to reach out and report.

According to the Red Zone Report published in 2017, 23% of women, who were raped in 2015-2016, were assaulted on a university campus.

In 2017, The Australian Human Rights Commission conducted a survey which found one in five students had experienced sexual harassment at university. 94% of those sexually harassed had chosen not to report it to their university, while 84% of those who were sexually assaulted did not report it.

A recent survey, conducted on a group of UNSW students, found that many people would not report sexual assault or harassment due to the stigma that surrounds the issue.

“In theory I would want to, but there would probably be emotional factors holding me back,” said an anonymous student, after being asked if they would report their assault.

“I was embarrassed [to report it] because I was drunk,” a victim said after experiencing ‘unwanted kissing and touching.’

“I’d be conflicted because of the stereotypes I’d get thrown at me,” said another student.

“I wish I would report it… but if my decision had changed then I would assume that shame and vulnerability would have gotten to me,” one responder said.

Jessica felt that if she reported the incident she would “look like an idiot”.

“I don’t care what it looks like on him. It’s more like what it looks like on me. Doesn’t it?” she said.

“I was just in shock. All I knew was that I didn’t want to say anything. I was trying to avoid speaking to anyone about it because I don’t want to make it into a big deal in case I’m overreacting. But then when I did tell someone, I realised how gross it was. All I could think of was that I wanted to get away from him. Get me out of here. Get me home,” Jessica said.

There are also concerns that universities are not taking the required initiative to inform their students about the resources that exist to help victims.

This does not mean that universities lack in their resources. It appears to be the opposite.

UNSW has a ‘really good’ online portal that allows sexual assault or harassment victims to report it, through an anonymous interface. The portal is for anyone who knows of an assault and wants to bring it to the attention of the university, regardless of if they go to UNSW or not.

“A number of reports went through that portal saying that there was someone who was serially harassing people at that bus stop,” Abby Butler said.

Abby is a UNSW student fellow and an ‘unofficial’ first responder who has gone through extensive training in supporting sexual assault victims.

 “Because there was such an influx of reports, they were able to investigate and found someone was at the bus stop harassing women,” she said.

Other universities are also tackling this issue with their own initiatives.

The University Of Wollongong has implemented an app called ‘SafeZone’ that gives students access to security quickly, with a GPS feature installed.

“If you are parked in a parking lot far away, all you have to do is say I’m here on this app and they will come right over to you and give you a lift to your car,” said Jake Rigney, a current UOW student.

It appears that universities are making the effort to tackle the issue of sexual assault and harassment but the problem seems to be that students are unaware of its existence.

According to the UNSW student based survey, 86% of the students were unaware of the initiatives that the university has in place for sexual assault and harassment victims, resulting in unreported cases.

Many also didn’t know about the Red Zone Report.

“I wouldn’t know where to go or who to tell. I don’t know what exists to help me in that situation,” said one of the surveyed students.

“In terms of awareness, and getting resources out, it’s not that we don’t have them, its that the uni really lacks communication to students that they exist,” said Ruby Leonard, a representative from UNSW Women’s Collective and the SRC women’s officer.

“We hear about plagiarism and we have to do that f****** module. We literally spend lecture, seminars and tutorials hearing about plagiarism every time we have a new assignment,” she said.

Ruby said she doesn’t understand why the same time and effort can’t be directed towards informing the students about the portal.

“We all had to do those modules on referencing and academic ethics, surely this is just as, if not, more important,” agreed Abby.

Abby said that people tend to think that the university isn’t doing enough but what they don’t realise is “the extent and scope to which resources actually exist.”

“Why don’t the students know about the portal or the red report in 2017? Why can’t we have this conversation more?” Abby asked.

“That’s definitely something UNSW should work on,” she said.

Both Abby and Ruby believe that UNSW is ‘way ahead of the game’ and are ‘one of the leaders’ amongst other universities.

Though stigma will seemingly continue to prevail around this issue,university students need to be informed about what resources are available to them.

“Get educated. Know where you need to go when something happens. Know who you should talk to.”

*Name of victim has been changed for privacy reasons

Second year journalism student at UNSW