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National Student Safety Survey shines spotlight on sexual assault

Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual violence

The results of a survey conducted by the Social Research Centre have been released, examining the extent of sexual harassment and assault at Australian universities.

The National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) was conducted across Australian universities in 2021 through the Respect. Now. Always. initiative, a program that aims to prevent sexual violence and better support those affected.

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Between September and October last year 43,819 students participated in the survey, providing a national snapshot of the state of safety at our institutions.

An overview of the data showed that 16.1% of students had experienced sexual harassment, while 4.5% had been a victim of sexual assault. Of these students, just 3% of those harassed and 5.6% of those assaulted lodged a formal complaint.

The results also showed that students of diverse sexuality and gender, women, younger students and people with disability were most at risk of harassment or assault, reporting the highest rates of these experiences in a university context.

Female students (10.5%), transgender students (14.7%) and non-binary students (22.4%) expressed higher rates of harassment in the past 12 months when compared with male students (3.9%).

Pansexual (21.5%), bisexual (17.7%) and gay/lesbian (12.3%) students far outweighed the numbers shows by heterosexual students (6.4%) when looking at harassment, while among students with disability 13.7% were targeted more often than other students (7.0%).

“The findings of the NSSS reflect the overall national trends in sexual harassment, further demonstrating that these harms differ by both gender and age. The additional finding here is the substantially higher rates of sexual harassment of gender and sexuality diverse students,” the report reads.

“The gendered nature of perpetration of sexual harassment, with males over-represented as those engaged in harassing behaviours, reflects national trends as well as existing Australian and international research.”

“The NSSS suggests that there may be some settings within university contexts that are more conducive to sexual harassment, whether among students or in the dynamic of staff and student supervisory arrangements.”

Among Western Australian universities, the University of Western Australia showed the greatest prevalence of sexual assault at 6.9%, while Edith Cowan University came in second to last across the nation’s institutions at 2%.

All local universities showed alarming rates of sexual harassment including UWA (21.4%), University of Notre Dame (19.2%), Murdoch University (18.5%), Curtin University (15.6%) and ECU (15%).

Universities Australia head Professor John Dewar has apologised to the students of Australia following the report’s release this week.

“On behalf of Universities Australia and its 39 members, I am deeply sorry,” Professor Dewar said.

“To every single university student who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, or has a friend, family member or loved one who has – I am sorry.

“I am sorry for what you endured. I am sorry for how that may have affected your relationships, your mental health, your studies and your life.”

The report also outlines a number of recommendations to combat sexual harassment and assault, provided by the student respondents.

These recommendations include challenging cultures that normalise or excuse sexual violence, improve awareness on mechanisms for reporting and support, provision of a range of response and support options for survivors to meet varied needs and increased scrutiny of leadership positions to prevent the protection of those in power.

“The gendered nature of sexual violence, whereby women as well as sexuality and gender minorities areover-represented as victims means that it is these students who are at greater risk of interruption or cessation of their university studies as a result of sexual violence,” the report’s conclusion reads.

“Ensuring equity of access to higher education requires both appropriate and trauma-informed responses to sexual violence, as well as proactive measures to prevent it within the university community.

Leigh Andrew Hill

Declaration: OUTinPerth co-editor Graeme Watson is an employee of Edith Cowan University.


Do you need some support?

If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, support and counselling are available from:

QLife: 1800 184 527 / qlife.org.au (Webchat 3pm – midnight)
QLife are a counselling and referral service for LGBTQIA+ people.

DISCHARGEDinfo@discharged.org.au / discharged.org.au
Discharged is a trans-led support service with peer support groups for trans and gender diverse folks.

Lifeline: 13 11 14 / lifeline.org.au

Beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 / www.beyondblue.org.au


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