Written by Maddie Chia
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
Content warnings for institutional betrayal and sexual violence.
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
My name is Maddie Chia, and I am a student activist in the sphere of sexual violence. I am a feminist. I am a survivor. I am a change maker. It’s time to step up and make tangible change, ANU. More needs to be done to keep us safe on campus.
ANU has recently come out with the ANU Sexual Violence Prevention Strategy 2019-2026, headed by the Respectful Relationships Unit. I remember being so excited when this strategy was released – finally, our complaints had been heard and something would be done to stop the toxic culture of sexual violence on campus. Student activists and student-led campaigns (such as the Women’s Department) have been tirelessly advocating on behalf of survivors for years, and before now, ANU had continually ignored complaints from student activists and turned a blind eye towards the high rates of sexual violence. The truth, however, is that everyone knows someone. Everyone knows someone who has been affected by sexual violence.
Sexual violence at ANU is an epidemic. 1 in 4 students have been assaulted on our campus. That’s 1 in 4 people walking down University Avenue. This is a huge percentage of our University population. This statistic includes your close friends, acquaintances, roommates, and strangers.
I concede, ANU has taken a step in the right direction by responding to the findings of the 2017 AHRC Change the Couse Report through their establishment of the official ANU Sexual Violence Prevention Strategy. There are three distinct phases of the strategy: the first is the establishment of the Respectful Relationships Unit, the second is building the infrastructure of the unit and raising awareness, and the third is implementing and innovating prevention methods. I do agree that the establishment of the Respectful Relationships Unit, the first phase of their plan, allows for a more centralised department to focus on sexual violence prevention. However, how much has the Respectful Relationships Unit really changed?
Many student activists, myself included, are extremely sceptical of the Respectful Relationships Unit, as their job within the university remains unclear. Their budget is case-by-case, and they have created a Student Ambassador Program which encourages students to create poster campaigns to evoke change in the community. As a student ambassador, I find this extremely demoralising. What is the point? We, as student ambassadors, are clearly passionate about ending sexual violence on campus, yet we aren’t given adequate materials or resources to contribute something meaningful. I am not a token. I will not be a pawn in their game. I want real change. The Respectful Relationships Unit spends more money on merchandise to promote their Unit than actually responding to disclosures of sexual violence on campus. They have personalised colour-changing mugs, t-shirts, pens, stickers, tote bags, drink bottles, and even card holder stickers for phones. Yet, when we propose ideas for actual advocacy, we are told that they don’t have the budget. Why can’t I survey the student population about their thoughts on the strategy? Why can’t I hold a university-wide sex positivity day in Kambri? Why do I just have to make infographics? What is the point of establishing a Respectful Relationships Unit on campus if they won’t do anything to actually help students?
On Market Day during this year’s O-Week, the Unit handed out stickers in the shape of big pink hearts with “RESPECT = RELATIONSHIP” written on them. Is this their grand plan to reach the wider university community? A stall manned by three middle-aged ladies handing out stickers and bags which tell us that “Consent is SEXY?” Would you approach them to ask about consent or sexual violence on campus? How does this solve the problem of removing perpetrators from the University? How does this aid survivors and stop sexual violence from occurring on campus?
I do acknowledge that the Respectful Relationships Unit has recently launched an online reporting tool to either disclose or report sexual violence at ANU. However, we still do not have data on how successful this is, especially since it has not been advertised widely in halls, colleges, or the ANU community more generally.
Another major problem with the strategy is its vagueness. What is the aim of the strategy? I have read it over ten times, and yet I still struggle to understand what it actually means. The strategy includes many overarching statements of what ANU wants to achieve, such as their desire for students to “experience equality and respect in all their relationships; personal or professional” and a significant reduction in “the prevalence of violence . . . for all in ANU, equally,” so that people may “live free of fear.” What do these statements really mean? What do they achieve? They discuss changing campus culture and bringing awareness to the ANU community, but never state how they will actually address the problem. Moreover, the way that words are defined within the strategy are also extremely confusing, specifically the term ‘victim-survivor.’ The strategy is a huge disappointment, as it does not address any of the necessary factors to create a safe university. I would like to see less overarching bullshit statements and more action, ANU.
This is my home, ANU. Why won’t you keep us safe?
As a survivor, I have lost faith in the system of reporting at ANU, and I know many others have too. Reporting is an extremely rigorous process, and more often than, nothing happens. I still see my rapist every week in my lecture. How is that an adequate response from ANU despite the fact that I reported it to the Respectful Relationships Unit and the Dean of Students?
Moreover, the strategy’s “how we will measure success” vision does not provide a concrete way of evaluating its proposed outcomes. The framework states that they will implement regular reporting, progress reports from the Respectful Relationships Unit, progress reports from an independent assessor, the coordination of a formal mid-term review of the strategy, and will host regular meetings between the Respectful Relationships Unit and students. However, how does this actually measure ‘success’ if the strategy doesn’t hold any weight to begin with? How is the Unit achieving its goal of “ANU [being] safe and inclusive” if there is limited tangible action being done to get there?
The Respectful Relationships Unit and ANU can talk the talk but they cannot walk the walk. They can provide us with empty promises about “Rolling Action Plans” and hand out free merchandise, but this does not address the problem whatsoever.
The strategy has propelled me to ask the question: why are student advocates the ones who are aiding survivors and providing information to the community rather than the ANU itself?
When the Respectful Relationships Unit does take action, it is often extremely insensitive and traumatic for survivors. There is little fostering of an adequate safe space, which leads people to avoid reporting or seeking help. The Unit has also been condemned by many Halls and Colleges for their disrespectful talks both late last year and earlier this year. Many students were left extremely triggered or walked out of the dining hall due to the insensitive way the Unit discussed sexual violence. There was no regard for survivors in the room, no content warnings, and no attempt to create a safe space for students. Students have since provided this feedback to the Unit, which they have dismissed. What happened to listening to students?
The Unit additionally established working groups to discuss the new strategy. Upon attending the first one, I left the online Zoom meeting and cried out of frustration and a lack of empathy for survivors. It felt like the Unit didn’t really care about what we actually had to say. Every time I tried to raise an issue, I was shut down by the head of the Unit, or told that this could not be implemented because it simply wasn’t their problem. How do matters of sexual violence on campus and at residential halls not concern the Unit? They were more interested in what could be done within the faculty, rather than what could be done to aid students. I was also told that they could not do anything about the lack of criteria surrounding intersectional values within Residential Hall committees, because this was not “their problem” despite it falling under their Unit’s umbrella of responsibility.
As a student ambassador for the Respectful Relationships Unit, I have continued to question how I can be part of a Unit that does not adequately support students. It saddens me that we have one of the highest rates of sexual violence out of Australian Universities nationwide, and yet our strategy does not reflect a substantial plan to make positive change.
I strongly encourage every ANU student to read over the Sexual Violence Prevention Strategy in-depth and question whether this is really the type of culture and community you want your University fees going towards. Question whether this is the best ANU can do.
I know that it isn’t.
Do better, ANU.