A group of graduating student wearing caps.

Why are universities such a magnet for sexual assaults?

There’s something about universities that make entitled young men feel safe pushing the boundary between consensual sex and rape – and it has to change, writes Jai Breitnauer.

Admittedly, when I saw my old higher education institute, the University of Warwick, hit UK headlines earlier this year over a group rape chat scandal, I wasn’t surprised. It’s 20 years since I graduated, but apparently not much has changed. When I was there, sexual assault was much more common than anyone working for the university would’ve been comfortable admitting. What made this recent chapter so repulsive is that not only were the victims made to feel “on trial” (their own words), but that two students initially banned from campus for 10 years had their punishment reduced to one year, after Mummy and Daddy made a complaint. This meant that, theoretically, they could return to their studies almost immediately. In some cases, on the same course as the women they had been talking about harming.

Across the world, women are protesting about the inadequate way sexual assaults are handled by universities where the focus is often on minimising damage to the institutions’ reputations rather than caring for the victim. A recent UK survey suggested a quarter of female students had experienced some sort of sexual assault, but only 2% made a formal complaint through concern over how it would be handled. Institutions now need to take a stark look at their statistics and ask themselves, is this a monster of our own creation? The way that officials handle sexual violence within the cradle of university life sends a clear message – and unfortunately, that message in many cases is, “don’t worry, lads, we’ve got your back.”

Knox College. Image: Asia Martusia/Critic te Arohi

Although I’m quite sure it’s unintentional, this seems to be the atmosphere created at the University of Otago’s Knox College. Knox has hit headlines after student magazine Critic published an exposé on the unforgivable way many sexual assault complaints had been handled there. Not only does Knox reportedly have a high incidence of sexual violence, but it also seems to have a leadership unwilling to admit the severity of the problem. The result is, at best, minimising of the issue. At worst, it’s directly damaging to the victims (making a student pay for bedding used as evidence? WTAF?)

This isn’t about Knox College alone: from 2016 to 2017, Otago University as a whole had 14 reported incidents of sexual misconduct in halls of residence. Victoria University in Wellington had eight, while AUT, Massey, Lincoln and the University of Auckland had just seven reports between them in the same period (although, in all honesty, even one is too many).

The difference is often in the way the offences are treated. If a university goes in for what I now like to call ‘The Warwick Method’ – minimising, victim blaming and generally arse-covering in an old boy style – then what they’re actually doing is creating a safe space for sexual violence to flourish. Universities and colleges need to take a harder, no-nonsense approach to foster an environment of respect and equity, a flat hierarchy where entitlement doesn’t play a role in how you’ll be treated if and when you fuck up.

This latter point is important because university is still a place of privilege, but it’s also a place of learning. The learning at university doesn’t just happen in lectures and seminars; the majority of enrolled students are very young, teenagers in many cases, and living away from home for the first time. Perhaps they’re learning how to make an omelette, balance their studies with a part-time job, or navigate a new public transport system.

They’re also learning who they are and how they relate to others in their new adult world, away from family and childhood friends. The university then is also acting in loco parentis. Halls of residence should be expected to be a safe cradle where minor to mid-range errors are rectified without being too harshly judged. But it should also be a place where duty of care has to be exercised in earnest. A place where a clear message needs to be sent that some mistakes lack a grey area (like sexual assault) and that they’re as unforgivable at university as they are in the “real” world.

Feminist author and journalism professor Barbara Kelley from Santa Clara University says that many universities give out a backward message about sexual assault that might unintentionally fuel that sense of male entitlement.

“On most campuses, the message is directed toward women; walk in groups, don’t leave your drink unattended, blah, blah, blah,” she told me over email. “The real message should be directed toward the males and it’s very simple – don’t rape. End of story.”

Emily Reynolds for the Guardian reported last year that a study had found 63% of British students are victims of sexual violence at university, with 8% of female respondents reporting they had been raped. Reynolds recommended that universities introduce an anonymous reporting system, like the one at Cambridge University, and that student counselling services are more adequately resourced to support victims. Crucially, she said that education around appropriate behaviour and conduct should start before students arrive at university, with higher education institutions partnering with schools to deliver this programme. All new students at Cambridge now have to attend a compulsory consent workshop, and Reynolds believes this work should be carried out among students while still in school. Apart from making sure that all students understand the rules when they arrive on campus, it sets the tone and sends an obvious message that sexual violence will not be forgiven.

Caitlin Barlow-Groome, national coordinator of New Zealand’s Thursday’s In Black (TIB) campaign agrees with Reynolds. TIB was launched in the mid-90’s by Green MP Jan Logie as a lobbying and support group around issues of sexual violence on campus. It was resurrected in 2016 and conducted research released as the ‘In Your Own Words’ report. It shows that 83% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment on campus, and 53% had experienced assault.

“It’s really disappointing many universities haven’t worked to rid campus of traditions that objectify women, that encourage a belief there is a place where sexual violence is OK,” says Barlow-Groome. “University College halls, which are owned by Otago University, now offer training around consent but it’s optional. The issue here is entitlement, how many of the people that need it are going to opt in? Being naive should not be an excuse.”

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Barlow-Groome would like to see compulsory consent training rolled out across year 13 high school students, and supported by tertiary institutions.

“This training should be for all young people, not just those going on to university,” she says, noting that university is a place where support is on offer, but for many high school leavers who go straight into work that type of support is not readily available. “We also need to understand that no single route to education and support works for everyone, we need to provide options for those from different cultural backgrounds, for example.”

Barlow-Groome says that what is clear is that universities are so concerned with their reputation they’re not supporting victims or making change. In the case of the University of Warwick, a backlash from staff and graduates forced them to take a second look at their practices. As well as employing an independent team to review their outdated disciplinary procedures, they’re working towards improving student support and making their Independent Sexual Violence Counsellor a permanent role. The students who were allowed back now won’t be returning – not because the university said they couldn’t, but because the student community sent a clear message that their behaviour was unwelcome.

With that in mind, I would urge all New Zealand university graduates and staff not to wait for your institution to take the lead – send a clear message yourself. Sexual violence on campus is not OK, and the time for change is now.


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