Queer university students face higher rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment than their straight peers, a landmark study from the Australian Human Rights Commission into Australian universities has found.
The data in the Commission’s “Change the course” report is based on a national survey backed by Universities Australia and completed by more than 30,000 students across all 39 Australian universities.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said the “unavoidable conclusion” of the data gathered was that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at “unacceptable rates” at Australian universities.
“Sexual assault and sexual harassment have a devastating physical, emotional and psychological impact on individuals,” she said.
“More than 1800 people made submissions to the Commission, sharing their stories about the way their lives, studies and mental health have been impacted by their experiences.”
According to the data, 44% of students who identified as bisexual and 38% of students who identified as gay or lesbian or homosexual were sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016, compared with 23% of their heterosexual peers.
Transgender and gender diverse students (45%) were more likely to have been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016 than cisgender women and men.
The study found students who identified as bisexual (3.8%) were also more likely than those who identified as heterosexual (1.5%) or gay/lesbian/homosexual (1.4%) to have been sexually assaulted in a university setting in 2015 or 2016.
The research also found that most students who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed at university in 2015 and 2016 didn’t make a formal report or complaint to the university.
Submissions to the study by LGBTI students revealed they didn’t report such incidents because they were afraid that the person they reported to might hold negative attitudes towards them based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“I did not report it to anyone or tell anyone of this incident. There is already a social stigma against homosexuals in Australia, and I think my experience will just exacerbate it,” one student wrote.
Another wrote: “I didn’t report the incident… because I wasn’t ready to come out to anyone.”
Commissioner Jenkins said almost a third of sexual harassment reported in the survey occurred on university grounds or in teaching spaces, while one in five of those who were sexually assaulted said the incident occurred at a university or residence social event.
She also stressed the importance of ensuring that survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment are given the support they need.
“The evidence is clear that universities need to do more to prevent such abuse from occurring and to build a culture that responds appropriately to these incidents by supporting victims and sanctioning perpetrators,” she said.
Universities Australia responded to the survey’s findings with a 10-point plan that includes the development of a respectful relationships program tailored to university students and a 24-hour support phone line on 1800 572 224 putting students in touch with specialist counsellors from Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia.
According to the report, Queensland’s Bond University had the fifth-highest rate of sexual assaults in Australia and the highest among Queensland universities, with 2.7 per cent of Bond respondents saying they had been sexually assaulted on campus in 2015 or 2016.
“Today is a wake-up call, and we understand that the issue of sexual harassment and assault is real and attitudes need to change, both in society and within the university sector. One case is one case too many,” Bond University vice-chancellor and president, Professor Tim Brailsford, said in a statement.
Professor Brailsford said the university had initiatives in place for campus safety, including for LGBTI students, but the university needs to do more.
“We will also be undertaking a comprehensive review of our disciplinary processes and procedures to ensure that we have the power to deal with perpetrators quickly and effectively, including suspension and expulsion,” he said.
If you need further support, contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), QLife on 1800 184 527 or online at QLife.org.au, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.with a 10-point plan