On August 1st, 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a landmark report entitled “Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities”. The first published contribution of its kind in Australia – a national human rights agency has collected, analyzed and transparently reported findings on the issues of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses.
Over 30,000 students from Australia’s 39 universities participated, and the reported findings are staggering. Twenty-six percent of students were subjected to sexual harassment in 2016 within a university setting, and 6.9% of students had been sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. The report also highlighted that perpetrators were often fellow students who were known to their victims, women between the ages of 18-24 experienced sexual violence at over twice the national rate, and those identifying as LGBTQ+, Aboriginal, or living with a disability, were also more susceptible to sexual violence.
What also proved alarming was that the majority of students who experienced sexual assault or harassment did not formally complain to, nor seek assistance from, the university. A large number of students failed to report incidents because they believed that their experiences were not “serious enough”, and, the majority of students had little or no knowledge of formal reporting mechanisms (at a rate of over 60% of students that experienced either sexual assault or harassment).
Though shocking, by no means is the Australian experience unique. Australia is not an isolated locale for sexual misconduct in the post-secondary context. In recent years, reports and studies emerging from the United Kingdom (2016), the United States (2015), and Canada (2015 Canadian Federation of Students’ “CFS”) fact sheet, 2015 CBC report, and the 2015 Ontario government’s report, speak to the almost identical existence of sexual violence at various post-secondary institutions. Across the four jurisdictions, the common themes emerging from the reports are:
- rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment are alarmingly high;
- perpetrators were often known to their victims and were often fellow students;
- underreporting is a common and serious trend;
- survivors failed to report because they believed their experiences were “not serious enough”; and,
- students (both survivors and bystanders) were often: (a) either unaware of reporting mechanisms/procedures, or, (b) did not believe that their complaint would go anywhere.
All of this is important because this September will mark the beginning of the first full academic year since Ontario’s post-secondary institutions will be subject to Bill 132 amendments under Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act (“the Act”). The Act requires that: (1) all post-secondary institutions develop and implement a sexual violence policy that clearly sets out processes for how each school responds to incidents/complaints and encourages transparency with its students, the Minister, and its board of directors; (2) policies ought to consider student input, be published for easy access, and provide clear information as to the supports and services available to students; and (3) the development of training programs to be administered to faculty, school administrators, staff, and students.
With Bill 132 amendments in place for the new school year, what do the aforementioned research trends tell us? The following are some key takeaways that post-secondary institutions ought to consider.
- Consent Education
Results indicating that sexual assault and sexual harassment rates are high, and that perpetrators were often known and fellow students, indicates a lack of understanding and/or respect for consent. Important to note are CFS’ reported findings where surveys showed “60 per cent of college-aged males indicated that they would commit sexual assault if they were certain that they would not get caught” and that “20 per cent of male students believed forced sex was acceptable if someone spent money on a date, if the person’s date was under the influence of drugs or alcohol or if individuals had been dating a long time”. Whether consent is a foreign concept to some or a concept paid little regard, nonetheless it requires addressing. Fostering a culture of consent is crucial in changing the behavioural patterns of perpetrators.
- Shifting the Discourse
Survivors’ beliefs that their experiences were “not serious enough”, or worthy of attention, coupled with underreporting rates, indicates a serious need for combatting the normalization of sexual violence. If survivors themselves do not believe their experiences are worthy enough, it cannot be expected that they utilize the systems and procedures put into place to address complaints. Administrators and staff cannot assume that the mere existence of sexual violence policies will encourage reporting. Beyond policy, administrators ought to consider how they might challenge the very assumptions that contribute to underreporting.
- Broad and Transparent Communication
Coupled with the underreporting trend was the issue that several survivors and bystanders failed to report due to a lack of policy awareness and reporting mechanisms. Many students also expressed their concerns that even if they reported an incident, they did not believe it would go anywhere. Post-secondary institutions should consider the current climate of their campuses and consider their students’ concerns and confidence in institutional responses. To foster awareness and utilization of the policy and its reporting mechanisms, it is important that post-secondary institutions communicate their policies broadly and be transparent about their procedures. Doing so will also work to manage students’ expectations and leave less room for surprises and disillusion. Post-secondary institutions should consider how to promote knowledge of, and confidence in, their newly implemented policies.
The Australian report, though conducted in a different country and with an entirely separate set of students, provides valuable insight into the sexual violence dilemma currently faced by students and post-secondary institutions in Canada. Despite Bill 132 requirements in place for September, students’ experiences and underlying trends are crucial to consider in encouraging both the utilization and success of newly created policies.