Sexual Assault: A Letter About a Conversation We Need to Have

CW: sexual assault, the AHRC survey, institutional response.

I have a lot of words about the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Sexual Assault Report. I have a lot of words about the release of the survey results and the ridiculous campaign that is “Respect. Now. Always.” I have a lot words, and I intend to use them all.

This is a letter to the students of ANU, to all activists, survivors and supporters, to all ANU staff, educators and residential college staff, and to the staff that hold fancy titles. This is to anyone who chooses to read this letter.

Before we begin, I think it’s important to disclose that I am angry. I’m exceptionally angry that this report struggled to get ethics approval, yet it was released anyway. I am angry that both Universities Australia and the “Respect. Now. Always.” campaign were major sponsors of the report, despite the close-minded attitudes and victim-blaming stances they perpetuate.

I am angry that the report recounts specific individual experiences, which in turn opens itself up to potentially re-traumatise survivors.

I am angry that universities saw the results long before student activists did, and even longer before the general public. I am angry that the ANU’s supposed main priority is to support anyone affected by sexual assault and harassment, yet Mr VC failed to provide names or contacts for any support services in the email he sent out. I am angry that there has still been no mention from the university about taking disciplinary action against perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment.

I am angry that after decades of student activism and advocacy in this area, it is only now that universities are choosing to ‘listen’.

I am very, very angry at all these things, but perhaps most notably, I am angry that after decades of student activism and advocacy in this area, it is only now that universities are choosing to ‘listen’.

I am aware that my frustration and anger echoes that of so many activists, survivors, and students who have felt the impacts and effects of sexual assault and harassment on campus.

As a student activist, I feel the extremely watered-down impacts of sexual assault, particularly when compared to the immediate effects survivors face. People who are unknowingly amongst a community of survivors will feel the impacts even less. And people like Brian Schmidt –  shocked by the survey results – have probably not felt any real impact until now. It’s for this reason that we need to open up this conversation about sexual assault on university campuses. It’s for this reason the university needs to start listening to student activists and to start taking responsibility for their mishandlings and the anguish they have caused. Most importantly, it’s time that this university started to take action to prevent future occurrences of this systemic problem.

As of 1 August 2017, it is actions that have sounded louder than words. It is the actions of the community around you – such as the simple act of wearing black on Thursdays in solidarity – that will mean more than anything they could possibly say. It’s the future actions that this university decides to take, that will shape the way we treat this epidemic.

Ultimately, it’s our own individual actions which will determine just how much changes, and how much will stay the same. Regardless of whether you believe you have the power to make a change, you must try. If not you, then who? And if not now, then when?

Ultimately, it’s our own individual actions which will determine just how much changes, and how much will stay the same. Regardless of whether you believe you have the power to make a change, you must try. If not you, then who? And if not now, then when?

The actions of the student body have, and always will, far outweigh the actions that this university takes. In such a short space of time we’ve seen traction gained in the student space. Let’s take a moment to briefly review. There has been the release of the ANUSA and PARSA recommendations; the ANU Women’s Department initiatives, such as solidarity t-shirts; an extensive list of recommendations for support and counselling from residential pastoral care networks and leadership teams; the widespread accessibility of resources and available support services; and the continuing advocacy and support from student activists across the university.

Now, let’s take a moment to reflect on what traction the university has gained. We’ve heard about an upcoming external review of all residential colleges, and seen the new page on the ANU website with a blurb about how ANU will be “talking a lot about respectful relationships, sexual consent, boundaries, communication, and the support available for survivors of sexual assault and harassment”. Let’s just pause for a minute to acknowledge that ANUSA, PARSA and the corresponding Departments started talking about these things long before the release of the survey. Let’s just pause again to acknowledge the huge amount of underpaid, and, indeed, unpaid work that the Women’s, Queer*, and Ethnocultural Officers do to handle cases of sexual assault and harassment, and to help raise awareness surrounding these issues.

Let’s all take one extended pause to recognise that the student body had opened up this conversation long, long ago, but it’s now, and only now, that the university has decided to participate.

I could not tell you how many articles written by university students I have come across that recount experiences of sexual assault and harassment at university. I could not fathom the number of experiences I have heard, online and in person, of sexual harassment and assault on campus. And I cannot tell you the amount of times I have heard the words: “We take sexual assault very seriously.” In reality, if the Australian National University took sexual assault as seriously as it claims to, this letter would have never been written; the results of the AHRC report wouldn’t be what they are.

I appreciate that Brian Schmidt is “sorry”, but to be sorry isn’t enough. To be “shocked” isn’t enough – not when I don’t know a single student who was even moderately surprised at the survey results. It’s about time that this university started listening to its students, and started carrying out the actions that we’ve long been advocating for.

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t have to fight against a system that should be fighting for us.

With my sincere regards, and my upmost solidarity to all survivors.

Yours truly,
Christina Fawns