real life

"I was raped on a university campus and silenced."

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek help with a qualified counsellor or by calling 1800 RESPECT.

In the wake of The Hunting Ground documentary’s release and screening at my university, the University of Melbourne, a welcome conversation has opened up about campus sexual assault. However, these discussions often end with the same thing: don’t worry kids, it’s nowhere near as bad here in Australia.

Every discussion on the seriousness of campus sexual assault is tempered with the caveat that a strictly American problem is presented in The Hunting Ground.

Of course, the American college system, with its majority of students living on campus and its separate police force, has a culture different from ours. But our universities are burying their heads in the sand if they think that our colleges are exempt from the rape culture and silencing tactics brought to light in The Hunting Ground.

I know, because I was raped at a University of Melbourne college, and I was silenced.

"I was raped at the University of Melbourne, and I was silenced." (Image: Facebook)

The assault was perpetrated by a friend of mine at the end of our first year of university, during a college party. The next morning, a close friend helped me report it to college administration. Initially, it seemed like they were going to be completely helpful and supportive. They referred me to counselling and suggested I go to the police if I wished.

The intercollegiate protocol for dealing with such offences is a disciplinary hearing, which I was told would occur during the summer holidays. Both I and the perpetrator would tell our story to a panel consisting of college administration, the student council leader (our peer) and a lawyer. This sounded like torture to me, so I decided to bypass it by going to the police instead; the college supported this decision.

College is an incredibly insular community. At times this can be comforting; in the wake of the rape it was terrifying. Going to meals three times a day, crossing the courtyard to exit college and visiting friends in other blocks all became impossible to do alone. Every time I left my room I was consumed by panic at the thought of seeing the perpetrator.

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I was raped at a University of Melbourne college, and I was silenced. (Image: Getty)

Because my story was only “an allegation”, no action could be taken against him. No suggestion was given as to how I could avoid crossing his path, or how he could avoid crossing mine. While I understand that it would be rash to expel a person immediately based on an allegation, surely the possibility the victim is telling the truth needs to be taken into account by protecting them from contact with the accused?

Naturally, I told my friends about the rape and discussed how I was feeling. The college administration did not approve of this. I was informed that I should refrain from talking about it in communal college areas; the vague notion that it could “hurt my case” was repeated.

My illusions of being supported the way I needed were finally shattered when I was told by administration not to refer to the incident as a “rape”. “Sexual assault” was preferred, because it wasn’t as inflammatory. Further indignity came when I asked for my parents to be notified of the incident and they refused, gently but firmly talking me out of it. As an emotional wreck who now required a friend to sleep on my floor due to my feelings of insecurity, I passively agreed with their authority.

Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss the practice of 'casual sexual assault' on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.

The perpetrator decided it would be best to not return to college the following year; he wasn’t expelled, but at least it meant I could return. I reported the rape to the police and he was taken in for questioning, but after six months I was informed the case couldn’t proceed to court due to insufficient evidence.

The college did some positive things in the wake of the incident. They introduced specific talks on consent in O-Week, for the first time. They changed college policy so that the primary suggestion is to go to the police, rather than the college disciplinary hearing. These are positive steps. However, recent events have caused me to wonder if the rape problem in our colleges has really been solved.

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A former friend of mine remains on good terms with the perpetrator, and recently brought him over to college. I don’t live at college anymore, but the close friend who supported me the morning after still does. He was livid and messaged our former friend to demand why he’d brought a rapist onto college grounds. On receiving an unsatisfactory response, my friend went to administration to demand the removal of the perpetrator.

Rather than have his complaints taken seriously, my friend was admonished. In his message to our former friend, my friend had referred to the perpetrator as a “rapist”. According to administration, this constituted slander since it was only an allegation and had never been proven in the courts.

When my friend said that surely the perpetrator wasn’t allowed on college grounds, he was informed that because the perpetrator had chosen to leave, he had every right to return as a visitor. Our former friend simply needed to be “more discreet”, because evidently this was “a sensitive issue” for some people still at college. My friend was further informed that he was behaving like a “vigilante”.

My rape was then referred to as the “lowest point in the college’s history”. Similarly, when I first reported the rape I was informed, with sadness, that it was the first incidence of sexual assault in the college’s long history. (I highly doubt this, but it does mean I was the first to ever report a sexual assault, which is troubling.)

rape at university of melbourne

Image: Getty

This focus on reputation and legacy at the expense of victims is the driving problem with our colleges’ reactions to rape reports. When we protest the college’s actions we are told they are a matter of staying true to legal proceedings. Because it is “an allegation”, no action can be taken. While purporting to be neutral and politically correct, this sends a clear message to the victim that they are not believed.

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But only believing the victims who get their case taken to court and the rapist declared guilty means only believing a tiny fraction of rape victims. Surely there is a way to acknowledge the unproven nature of allegations without siding completely with the rapist.

The knowledge that my rapist is allowed to walk into college whenever he wants feels like a second betrayal by my college. Justifying their decisions as staying true to the law makes it feel as though there is nothing I can do in response.

My skin crawls when I imagine him walking around a college where many of my female friends still live. How many of them would be comfortable having a rapist in their home?

Yet when my friend raised the issue of female students’ safety, he was rebuffed by administration on the same grounds: it’s just an allegation.

"Because my story was only “an allegation”, no action could be taken against him." (Image: The Weinstein Company)

Part of me wants to listen to the college administration and believe that they’re doing the right thing. But try as I might, I cannot believe that the way I’ve been treated, and the leniency afforded to the perpetrator, are fair. I believe that I can’t be the only student from a University of Melbourne college to have been let down by the administration’s handling of their rape report.

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This article hasn’t even touched on the way features of the college environment make it ripe for sexual assaults to occur. But clearly, our colleges have a problem when it comes to the handling of rape reports. We may not have all the features of the American college system which make it so awful for victims, but our university’s colleges are part of the same problem.

Smaller it may be, but Australian universities definitely have their own hunting grounds.

The above is a disturbing case, but as recent media reports have revealed, it's by no means an isolated one.

This February, the National Union of Students published a survey of women from 34 universities in which 27 per cent of respondents reported experiencing sexual assault. Twenty-four per cent of those cases occurred at university accommodation.

The Hunting Ground sparked a welcome conversation about campus sexual assault. (Image: Facebook)

At the request of the author, Mamamia will not identify the particular college she attended. However, we did approach the University of Melbourne and its Heads of Colleges Group for comment. Neither could speak to specific cases, but the latter expressed regret for the way the author's case was handled.

“I’m really disappointed to hear that they weren’t protected and dealt with appropriately," said Chair of the Heads of Colleges Group, Margie Welsford. "Because I know that it can affect people’s lives in terrible ways. We want respectful communities and that’s what we work very hard towards."

Ms Welsford said the group had recently begun working more closely with the university to improve its collective response to sexual assault cases, including collaboration on consent campaigns, bystander training and accessibility of victim support resources.

Still, the colleges remain entirely independent, and thus don't actively collaborate with the university to protect victims post-assault.

“There is no compulsory mechanism for reporting between the colleges and the university," she said, "but with recent events coming to light, that may be something we work on together in the future.”

"Australian universities definitely have their own hunting grounds." (Image: iStock)
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Currently, the colleges will assess and handle each case in isolation, but Ms Welsford maintains the wellbeing of the victim is still always the first priority. In some cases, this means paying for alternative accommodation while an investigation is underway.

“Of course you have to give the perpetrator the right to natural justice," she said. "But as Head of College, you also have the right to make certain decisions to protect the victim.”

If a case is reported to the university, the response is much the same.

"If the [alleged perpetrator] is not incarcerated, they have freedom and access across the university," said University of Melbourne Deputy Provost, Professor Susan Elliott. "But we do whatever we can to ensure that they are not in the same classes, do not have the same tutors, are not in the same exams, all those sort of things.

“We do take this really very seriously and are appalled that there is still violence against women," she said. "It’s a national problem. Having said that, we only had five reported sexual assaults last year to the university. All of them occurred off campus."

However, Professor Elliott acknowledged that with the university and colleges arranging screenings of The Hunting Ground, that figure may change.

“We’ve recently appointed two more people to our Safe Communities group recognising that with The Hunting Ground movie coming out, that it was likely to stir memories of people who perhaps hadn’t acted in the past,” she said.

“That's really what I’ve found so troubling; that these poor women have been holding on to these stories for years.”

Mamamia’s Survivors of Sexual Assault Week is about providing support for the one in five women Australian women who will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. To read more from Survivors of Sexual Assault Week, click here. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, don't suffer in silence, contact 1800 RESPECT or visit www.1800respect.org.au

Tags: current-affairs , university , women
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