Content warning: Sexual assault is discussed in this piece.
Last year the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released a National Report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities, with alarming findings. In the wake of the report, the Australian National University, the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne have made it a requirement for all commencing students to complete an online sexual consent module. Currently at Monash University there are two consent modules sitting in our Moodle realm. The units are a requirement for students partaking in off-campus and co-curricular events, such as society camps and when representing Team MONASH, however it only requires the ticking of a box to claim that you have done the modules with little accountability. For the rest of us they remain optional. The first module, Respectful and Responsible: Making a Safer Community at Monash recommends setting aside 30 minutes to complete. In first year, I sat through a lecture on plagiarism that was longer – it went for over an hour. The second module, Sexual Consent features a video just under two minutes long and additional resources: a 282-word video transcript and two links to support organisations.
The sexual consent modules have been modelled according to AHRC Report results, which aims to teach students how to obtain and recognise sexual consent, healthy relationships and how to be an active bystander. In 2016, one in four students witnessed another student being sexually harassed at university, with most students not taking any action in response. The main reason females did not act after witnessing sexual assault was because they didn’t know what to do at 46 per cent, compared to 16 per cent of men; while 31 per cent of males didn’t act as they did not think the incident was serious enough to intervene, compared with 20 per cent of females.
Across Australia many students have expressed outrage and disappointment in the ‘click through’ nature of the Consent Matters module, that requires an hour to complete and uses animated stick figure models to explain obtaining an “enthusiastic yes”. (The Monash platform doesn’t use stick figures as it was developed separately by the Safer Communities Unit. Whilst our figures have bodies and are wearing clothes, they are faceless so I guess the budget ran out.) Monash Student Association Women’s Officer, Alisha Rao, believes that whilst the modules “are a step in the right direction”, she affirms that they need to be made mandatory “with real consequences for not doing them”. Currently, if you fail to pay a library fine that accrues to $25 as an undergraduate student, you are encumbered and therefore unable to graduate, re-enrol, access your results or use Monash online services. With such heavy consequences placed upon library use, why should something as critical as consent and the risk of bodily harm be deemed inconsequential?
Should universities be solely responsible for combatting sexual misconduct and changing societal norms that fuel sexual assault? As seen with the recent #metoo Movement, no industry, gender or generation are without stories of sexual harassment or sexual assault. The AHRC Report highlighted attitudes towards women and sex as contributing to the perpetration of sexual misbehaviour at university. Submissions from female students describe a “boys will be boys” culture where men feel “entitled” or “owed” women’s bodies for sexual gratification. Recent O-week events from St John’s College at the University of Sydney made international news whereby female students were exposed to degrading “meat market” sex games organised via a Facebook event called “Prime cuts and minute steaks”. Women were ranked on how “fuckable” they appeared, with one female student told to “watch out tonight” as she was chosen in the top five referred to as, “Fresher Five”. She was then “baited” and hunted for the night by males attempting to have sex with her. The Executive Officer of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, Karen Willis has stated there is no need to mark their calendars to know when O-week is running as, “We can tell every year from the spike in calls to our rape crisis service”.
If universities want to be recognised as world leaders in moulding the next generation of thinkers and members of society, then they must be pioneers in facilitating change. AHRC Report found over 60 per cent students had little or no knowledge about where they could go to formally report an experience of sexual assault. The Respectful Communities Initiative was introduced in response to the report findings and forms part of Monash’s 10-point action plan. Whilst the initiative helps supplement the consent modules, more is needed. As Miss Rao stressed, student voices need to be included too, as should evaluation procedures to assess whether this does in fact aid the reduction of sexual assault and harassment attacks at university.
Furthermore, many of the AHRC submissions described the use of alcohol and/or drugs influencing the acts of wrongful sexual behaviour, although it did not separate the number of incidents involving such substances. Whilst the modules detail that consent cannot be granted whilst intoxicated and provides examples of standard drinks, they fail to address questions like who bears responsibility if both parties are intoxicated and how do you fight against wrongdoing if you can’t remember anything? These are the real-world situations we find ourselves in, however are left unanswered in the modules. Monash needs to implement in-person consent and bystander training, most notably during O-week when there is a sharp spike in the number of sexual assault and harassment incidents reported. As shown in a government report from the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault and a growing number of literature reviews, programs spanning over multiple sessions and with face-to-face contact are the most successful at changing behaviour and lowering the levels of sexual violence.
Sexual misconduct is often viewed as a gender war when it is anything but. Trans and gender diverse students reported the highest percentage of sexual harassment in the form of intrusive questions about private life or physical appearance found to be offensive (39 per cent), followed by males (19 per cent) and females (13 per cent). While the AHRC results show[Drawing]ed women were more likely than men to be sexually assaulted at residential accommodation; sexually assaulted male students (29 per cent) were more likely than women (20 per cent) to have experienced the most recent incident at a university or social event, such as a pub crawl.
Statistics can often depersonalise the truth at hand. Sexual assault isn’t some guy hiding in a backstreet wearing a balaclava, gripping a knife. It’s done by the guy who tapped you on the shoulder because you accidentally dropped your student card. It’s happened to the girl from your group project who has just gotten out of a long-term relationship. Since Monday she’s been telling friends she isn’t ready to get involved with anyone. On Saturday, she’s at pre-drinks hoping each vodka shot will numb the break-up discomfort a little more. At 6:23am Sunday morning, she’s the girl who wakes up to find herself in the unknown bed of someone she thought was a friend, yet she lays naked and cold with no recollection on how she got there. The last hazy memory reflects her crouching in a dirty Chapel Street bar toilet cubicle, alone and nauseated wanting to vomit. She wakes up disordered and with physical pain between her legs. She’s told: “You don’t know how long I’ve been wanting to do that” from someone she thought she could trust which amasses an even greater weight of defeat and shame. That same Sunday morning she will sit in her shower crying, overcome with guilt and wishing the water could wash away the disgust just like it does with her tears. She’ll scrub her skin with such forceful compulsion it will become red and stinging all to try and feel clean again, hoping that each scour will scrape away the indignity.
On Monday, she’s the same girl sitting next to you in the 11am lecture and asking to borrow a pen since she’s hurried in late. Ten minutes prior she was sitting in the doctor’s office repeating, “I don’t know” to questions over the use of protection, ejaculation and types of sex engaged in as she can’t even recall leaving pre-drinks, let alone what happened after. She’s told extra swabs need to be taken due to cuts in the skin of her genitals. This is the same girl who is taking down similar notes to you in the lecture, who afterwards admits to not yet completing the weekly quiz either. She’s the one that will then excuse herself mid-conversation, so she can run to the campus centre, lock herself in a bathroom cubicle where no one else can see and let the tears flood down.
If you can’t engage in a conversation about sex and consent with your partner, then you shouldn’t be having sex. We should care about making a change. You’re having sex with another human being, not the sock from your drawer or a silicone rod with batteries inside. Whilst the consent modules are a step in the right direction, they are simply not enough. They need to be improved and made compulsory, with consequences for failure to complete them alongside mandatory face-to-face training. We must push for more as these violations are happening to students just like you and me. After all, isn’t Monash where brilliant begins?
Support service contacts if you or anyone you know requires assistance:
Monash University Counselling Services: 9905 3020
Monash University Safer Community Unit: +61 3 9905 1599
Monash Security: 9902 7777 (Emergencies: 9905 3333)
South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA): 9594 2289 (24 hour crisis support)
1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732