Solidarity on Campus – The Importance Of A United Female Front In The Face Of Sexual Harassment And Assault In Residential Halls

CW: sexual assault, sexual harassment

Graphic by Juliette Baxter

As I walk through the doors of my residential hall at ANU, I am greeted with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my freedom to express my views in a comfortable environment, and the wonderful and unified female community. However, amidst a tumultuous time in which the ANU and all of its residential halls have been thrown into the spotlight regarding overwhelmingly high reports of sexual harassment and assault across campus, the importance of unification and education in residential halls is stronger than ever.

The 2017 UA-HRC report revealed that in 2016, out of 1,477 participants, at least 116 students were sexually assaulted, and 517 students had experienced sexual harassment on campus. There is an undeniable correlation between perceptions of residential relationships and the perpetration of sexual violence. This fuels a university culture that normalises attitudes pertinent to sexual assault and harassment. Whilst I acknowledge that these results pertain to both binary and non-binary genders, for the purpose of this piece I will be focusing on measures needed for female-identifying survivors.

The central reason why I want to emphasise the significance of a strong women’s community is attributed to my role as one of the Women’s Officers at my student residence. In a residential hall, we are confined to a bubble that can perpetuate the normalisation of certain attitudes and behaviours. While some would refer to these behaviours as a result of a culture that endorses ‘toxic masculinity’, it is notable to re-evaluate the use of our language. There are certainly both toxic and non-toxic behaviours at college, and not every toxic behaviour is due to overreaching masculinity. In this sense, I believe that modifying our language and removing gender-specific labels to describe behaviour is more constructive in addressing such severe matters.

My experience at my residency has shown me that one of the most effective ways to instill positive cultural change is through engaging with current policies, procedures and training programs. In addition to progressive leadership representatives, it is vital for residential halls to frequently update their policies and procedures. Currently, myself and two other leaders are assisting with updating the sexual assault and harassment policy of our residential hall. We aim to modify the language used and provide a policy that prioritises the safety and wellbeing of the survivor. These policies must take into account ANU-wide reviews, such as the incoming Nous Review results. This review investigated the contributing factors that resulted in the high figures of sexual assault and harassment in student residences. We are eagerly waiting for the recommendations of the review, and plan to incorporate them into the residential hall sexual assault and harassment policy. A combination of updated policies, procedures and appropriate training for all residents will set the standard in regards to the disparity between acceptable and intolerable behaviour.

I have witnessed first-hand the undeniable potential of women to accelerate cultural and behavioural change in a small space like a residential hall. The girls’ community within my hall is united, free and expressive, despite the potential of residential settings to skew perceptions and normalise derogatory attitudes towards gender roles and responsibilities. I believe that this strong female presence is lacking across many residential halls in Australia, and it is absolutely necessary for the encouragement of proper education and training programs and the creation of safe spaces. This year, under the Women’s Portfolio, three female-identifying forums were organised in which we were encouraged to discuss our sexual health, our own experiences with sexual assault and harassment, and other issues pertaining to our wellbeing, which created a space where women could feel comfortable to express their views and raise any concerns they had about the current state of the residential hall culture.

While reformations to residential hall policies and procedures are necessary, the crucial instrument that advances these foundations is strong leadership that sets the tone for first year residents. Changing a culture is a challenging and ongoing process, but it can be achieved through setting standards that are non-negotiable. Once these standards are set, they must be actively embedded into the residence’s values for long-term cultural change.

We can never underestimate the power of women and our influence on cultural transition through engagement with widespread education and setting precedent by defining boundaries and enforcing positive values that must occur at the start of every academic year. The ripples we have started in our residential halls will undoubtedly transcend into the broader ANU community where the true power of a united female front can actively prevail and withstand the test of time.