An end to sexual assault and harassment on campuses starts with a cultural shift


Ending sexual harassment and assault at universities will require a change in culture, experts say.

Ten months after the Change the Course report from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) revealed high rates of sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities, change appears to be slow. 

See also investigative report on sexual assault and harassment at Monash University:'You have to start somewhere': from changing the course to changing the culture

Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVSA) executive officer Karen Willis said universities need “cultural change, community change and individual behaviour change”.

Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia executive officer Karen Willis

“That is going to take a while and it is probably going to take quite a few years to get to the place where individuals and cultures have changed to the point where that sort of violence against women becomes unacceptable.

Ms Willis said the first step to cultural change should focus on the “sexual stereotyping that sees males’ wants and needs” motivated by women.

“There is a culture we’ve seen where there is a highly charged masculinity culture that is disrespectful towards women … that culture has to be changed,” she said.

“That can be done from within but also within leadership from that organisation.

“You’ve got the university leadership across the board where they set the culture but also the parameters and processes.”

Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology and ARC Future Fellow Dr Michael Flood agreed that cultural change was essential. 

“We need to change the norms and attitudes and inequalities which feed into sexual harassment and assault,” he said.

Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology

“We need to change young men and women’s understandings and attitude towards sex and relationship intimacy.”

Australian universities have implemented a list of recommendations from the AHRC in the face of these findings, but there is no current data to detail any change in the number of cases of sexual assault and harassment occurring on campuses nationally.

Dr Flood, whose research is focussed on primary prevention of sexual assault, said universities had improved systems to help survivors of sexual assault to come forward, but it was important for universities to continue to adopt strategies that stop sexual harassment and assault from occurring in the first place.

“One important thing that universities have done is to improve the responses to the victims and survivors of sexual assault and harassment,” he said.

“Universities are under pressure to hold perpetrators accountable for sexual harassment or assault.

“Many universities now have adopted education programs for the students, Mostly these are online education programs that focus on sexual violence.

“Consent education and respectful relationship education programs are an important strategy for preventing sexual assault and harassment on campus.”

Ms Willis agreed that education programs were important to minimise cases of sexual assault and harassment.

“I think that all people when they first come into universities should be engaging in ethical and considered training,” she said.

“(Those) concepts and ideas should constantly be reapplied in different ways with different messages, because what we know about the way adults learn is that … no one learns exactly the same.

“We have a view that women should be able to engage in all aspects of university life and go where they want and do what they want without the fear of sexual harassment or assault,” she said.

Perpetrators have to take responsibility for their own actions, and always ask if the person they are with consents.

Dr Flood said students did have a role to play. “The most important role students can play is to make sure they never commit or perpetrate sexual assault or harassment,” he said.

“That means, for example, when students are having sex they should make absolutely sure there is consent and the person consents at every point or every stage of the sexual activity.”

However, Ms Willis said issues of harassment and assault towards women were not confined to a university context and changes are needed within the community.

“I don’t necessarily think it is a problem on campus only,” she said.

“It certainly is an issue on campus but I think it is a problem everywhere.

“I think if you have a culture that also says anything goes, then at the pointy end there is also a culture that is disrespectful of women.

“It is experimenting with doing what you like and that is good, that’s what should happen at that age, but for some that experiment crosses the line.”

Ms Willis said it was important people understood they had a right to be safe on campus and in their everyday life but if they didn’t there were a number of options for support.

RDVSA is one option for domestic violence and sexual assault support that offers a 24/7 telephone service and online crisis counselling service for anyone in Australia who has experienced, or is at risk of experiencing, sexual assault and harassment.

“They can always go straight to the police … or there is a number of sexual assault services … and of course the universities themselves,” she said.

“There is a counselling service at every university … and they can go and have a talk to the counsellor there.”