College boys and sexual consent: there’s still a long way to go

As a young law student in the 1980s, I was sitting in a lecture theatre waiting for our lecturer to begin. A group of young male students walked in carrying a blow-up plastic sex doll. Their plan was to have the lecturer hold it – which he did briefly, if awkwardly.

They then took the same doll to our criminal law class – the one where we were learning about sexual assault law. Hilarious stuff. Particularly for those of us, in a classroom of 100 students, who’d actually experienced the trauma of being raped.

It would be wonderful to think that anecdotes like these belong in the dark ages of gender politics. Or even that taking a sex doll into a classroom was the worst of what was happening to female students at the time.

The reality is that sexual assaults were happening in residential colleges and on the campus of Sydney University in my days as a student – I knew some of the survivors. And assaults remain prolific across all universities.

In an article published this week, journalist Nina Funnell unpacks the results of an FoI investigation conducted by Channel 7, into police records of sexual assaults on our campuses. The accounts are nauseating.

Young women attacked in university toilets on their way to a morning class. Group attacks where men offer to escort a student to her car and then assault her in tandem. Women waking in their beds in university dorms to find a man on top of them.

And then there are the library masturbators, bathroom flashers and random sexual harassers beckoning women from their cars. Yet many of our tertiary institutions are doing almost nothing to prevent this or support those affected. Too often the response is to manage things “in-house”. Translation: hush it up.

How do I know this? Anecdotally because, as a senior academic, I’ve personally supported young women affected by these attacks. And, empirically, because the community campaigning group Fair Agenda has conducted a recent survey into sexual consent training at university colleges and residences.

Of the 217 surveyed only 87 indicated they are offering some kind of training about consent. Of those only 30 are using appropriately qualified educators.

A spokesperson for Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia – an evidence based counselling service which also offers training – said that using unqualified educators could end up reinforcing victim blaming myths and vicariously traumatising former survivors of assault.

Young women are reluctant to report assaults for multiple reasons: they blame themselves for having drunk too much, they don’t want to jeopardise their degrees or be frozen out by college buddies, and they are scared of the lengthy criminal law process.

Sexual assault is traumatic enough. But imagine if, in order to complete your degree, you had to see the perpetrator sitting in your classroom. Or walk by the door of the bathroom you were assaulted in. Or eat with him in the same college dining room.

We shouldn’t forget that men are sexually assaulted too. Often by the same kind of men who think women are up for grabs – a view recently endorsed by the next president of the United States.

To be fair, Australian universities have recently launched a Respect. Now. Always campaign and there is evidence that some universities are doing more than putting the slogan on their websites.

The vice chancellor at my institution, Macquarie University, has, for example, spoken out passionately about the issue of sexual assault and the damage it does to the lives of young women, their families and their circle of friends.

But there remains a long way to go before all the (largely male) heads of tertiary institutions get the issue, let alone do something concrete about it.

Most young Australian women have better access than ever to higher education. But when we factor in the rates of assault and harassment across our campuses we are obliged to question whether that access comes at a price.

Does equal access still mean women shutting up about small sexual humiliations? Does it mean zoning out when the college boys write demeaning things about vaginas in chalk on the pavement?

Does it mean not going to the head of your college when you or your friend are assaulted? Unfortunately, it still does.

Bright, high-achieving women are entering universities in one of the most competitive eras ever. Every mark counts and their careers are on the line in a way mine never was when I was at university. They are acutely aware of the stakes.

It’s time to take a long, hard look at how far we have come in offering young women genuine equality in education. It’s that serious.

And it’s time that all universities stop protecting their interests and get down to business in creating genuinely safe environments for all students.

This article was first published in The Guardian