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What Does The Landmark Campus Sexual Assault Report Mean For Offenders?

"If you’re not willing to hand down any kind of punishment for offenders, where’s the incentive for victims to report?”

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Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

Students of the Australian National University participate in a protest over sexual assault and harassment at universities, after the release of the AHRC report on August 1, 2017.

In her foreword to the landmark report on campus sexual assault, released on Tuesday, Australian sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins wrote it was an "unavoidable conclusion" that universities must do more to support victims of abuse, and sanction perpetrators.

But since the report and the responses to it landed, advocates have said loud and clear that they are unconvinced universities will actually make changes to crack down on perpetrators.

End Rape On Campus (EROC) ambassador Anna Hush told BuzzFeed News she had met with numerous survivors who had been told by their institutions that unless they reported the incident to police, there was little the institutions could do.

"I’ve sat in meeting with survivors and university management where they have questioned survivors so insistently about why they didn’t go to police that they broke down crying," Hush said.

"Universities do have the power to investigate and make findings, whether or not there’s a police report."


The report, which surveyed over 30,000 students from 39 Australian universities, revealed information about campus perpetrators: most notably, the majority are men.

Of all students who reported being sexually assaulted, 83% recorded that their attacker (or attackers) was male-only; 6% female-only; and 6% said they were assaulted by both men and women.

Among women who were sexually assaulted, the percentage of male perpetrators rose to 92%. Of men who were sexually assaulted, 41% recorded a male attacker; 26% a female attacker; and 24% both men and women.

Just over half of perpetrators — 51% — were known to the people they assaulted.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson told BuzzFeed News in a statement that issues of fair process and perpetrator accountability were "really complex issues and universities are giving them a great deal of attention".

"Situations where a complaint has been made and where the victim or survivor — for understandable reasons — would prefer not to report to police, but where there is no admission of guilt by an alleged perpetrator, are especially challenging," she said.

Universities Australia released a 10-point plan on Tuesday as its initial response to the report, which advocates criticised as not explicitly addressing perpetrators.

Robinson said that one of the points was to develop a set of guidelines for responding to reports of sexual assault and harassment, and that this would include guidelines for dealing with perpetrators.

The work would "consider how to best support survivors in their recovery and ensure they are the ones who decide whether and how to take each next step in the processes," Robinson said.

"This includes the outcome being sought, taking account of the need to afford natural justice and procedural fairness for all parties.

"How universities deal with alleged misconduct is an issue they are grappling with sincerely and carefully," she added.

Journalist Nina Funnell, who is an EROC ambassador and a sexual assault survivor, called for universities to explicitly address the issue of disciplinary processes for offenders, and to detail how they would function.

"Universities discipline for all sorts of things all the time," she told BuzzFeed News. "Plagiarism, destruction of property, theft, bullying — and, absolutely, sexual assault falls under the disciplinary code of conduct.

“You can implement the best reporting mechanism in the world, but if you’re not willing to hand down any kind of punishment for offenders, where’s the incentive for victims to report?”

One key concern noted by students in the AHRC report was the belief that university leaders don't hold perpetrators accountable for their behaviour.

Some students submitted that they had not reported their assault because they lacked confidence the university would take action. One wrote:

"The university favours informal procedures rather than disciplinary action. I had no interest in entering into a process with the university, having to tell the university my story (and potentially losing control over it), having my experiences questioned, only to have the perpetrator apologise."

Kate Jenkins told BuzzFeed News one of the issues that came up "repeatedly" in the submissions was that students who had been sexually assaulted just wanted to be separated from the perpetrator in their classes or their accommodation, but that this wasn't happening.

"The [student] just required support to take action to separate the person from the perpetrator and that would not happen," she said. "It was all pre-conditioned on reporting, guilt, all that sort of stuff.

"So what is really clear for us, not just in reporting but in support, that there should be mechanisms where your support could include moving a student out of class even if they haven’t been found guilty of criminal conduct, for example.

"People often don’t want to go through a complex process — they just don’t want to have to sit in a lecture with that person."

Jenkins said it was an approach of putting the "welfare rather than the discipline" first.

"Obviously the punitive approach is a very important part. That sanctioning is very important.

"But in lots of ways, the key concerns for these students, the immediate concern is ‘Actually I was having to keep putting myself in a traumatic situation'."

One reason disciplining offenders is so complicated for universities is a fear of legal action.

"Universities as a general rule are more likely to be sued by perpetrators rather than victims," Nina Funnell told BuzzFeed News.

"What we know about perpetrators is that they are incredibly entitled – committing the act of sexual assault is incredibly entitled. When they are excluded from campuses, they become highly litigious and often sue their universities.

"Victims on the other hand rarely sue their universities because they are so overwhelmed by their own trauma and just getting through the day-to-day of surviving."

Jenkins said the question of liability “probably has historically been a big impediment to dealing with these issues properly”.

She said she has had many conversations with universities about liability, and made the case that universities should care what happens to their students regardless.

“What is their responsibility, what is in their remit, what falls to police?” she said.

“I do recall one conversation about [what happens] if you start focusing on an over-technical response about ‘when did it happen, was it on our watch?’ What that does for students is sends a message that what happens to them doesn’t matter unless it happens in particular circumstances.

“This piece of work started from the other way. It was a piece of work driven by [the idea that] you should know what is happening to your students, because their ability to get a good education will be impeded if they’re experiencing these behaviours.”

Abby Stapleton, the Women's Officer for the National Union of Students, told BuzzFeed News that the survey put the "onus on universities" in terms of cracking down.

"That’s a huge reason why survivors don’t report, because there is no real guarantee of any sort of outcome," she said.

"I think before the survey, perpetrators knew they could get away with sexual assault and nothing was going to happen, or very little was going to happen...now the pressure is well and truly on to get survivors outcomes."

Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Lane Sainty at lane.sainty@buzzfeed.com.

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