real life

Why it's time to face up to Australia's hidden culture of university campus rape.

Content warning: This piece details experiences of sexual assault and rape and may be distressing for some readers. 

For too long, when people hear of campus sexual assault they think of frat parties, mattress protests and other distinctly American imagery.

But sexual assault and rape at Australian universities is happening at shocking levels and the Australian public is just wising up to the issue.

I should know.

In 2007 I was an honours student at the University of Sydney. While travelling home on the day of my honors presentation I was violently assaulted. I was grabbed, bashed, strangled, and had a box-cutter held against my throat.

The man told me “I will kill you” before he proceeded to try to rape me.

I fought back. While feeble, my resistance was just enough to undermine his sense of control over the situation and he fled.

I wasn’t raped. But I was indecently sexually assaulted, bashed, choked, bruised and deeply traumatised by the attack.

In the weeks that followed the media became intensely interested in the case. I had Today Tonight and A Current Affair at my front door along with morning shows, nightly news and all the tabloids.

At Sydney University other students began to recognise me as I had waived my right to anonymity. And the flow on effect was that other sexual assault survivors began to disclose their own stories of rape to me. And so, even though my own assault had been a stranger-danger assault, I became acutely aware of the rapes that were occurring on my own campus.

Writer Nina Funnell.

Women from St Andrews College being raped in their own rooms.

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Women from Women’s College being raped on St Paul’s oval.

Women from the subject I taught (I was a tutor) being raped at house parties.

All of their stories were horrific. And I never forgot any of them.

Of course, at the time, I was only 23 and I was still processing my own trauma (and still am, if I’m honest).

I did my absolute best to support these women, but I know I fell short.

Why?

Because like all other tutors, I was never trained in how to best support rape survivors. I was never even taught that the university had a formal complaints process. (Sounds stupid, right? But never under-estimate how little training staff get.)

So I did all I could think of. I believed those women. Told them it was never their fault. Supported them towards counselling. And those who wanted to report to police, I supported them in that.

Yet despite receiving multiple disclosures I floundered.

There was one case that broke my heart – and still breaks my heart every time I think about it. A student who told me she was so badly raped by a St Paul’s student she had carpet burns down her legs. I heard that disclosure in 2008 and still feel ill whenever I think of it.

The following year it was revealed that students from St Pauls had made a Pro-rape Facebook group. It was called “Define statutory: Pro-rape, anti consent”.

Again I wanted to vomit.

And, understandably, the woman who was raped the year prior was completely traumatised by that development.

Ten years later, those brave female students have never left me. I still see their faces and know their stories.

Which is why last year I decided to dedicate a year to reporting on sexual assault at Australian universities. I have written over 50 stories on the subject detailing some of the most horrific abuse including staff raping students. I also joined with Channel 7 who conducted the largest FOI investigation in Australian history into reports of rape at the 39 universities in Australia.

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This reporting has been the most rewarding and most disturbing thing I’ve ever done.

And in recent months I have shifted from journalist to out-right campaigner.

Today with End Rape on Campus I’m launching a photo campaign to highlight the issue of sexual assault within university communities.

Women (and a couple of guys) have shared their stories and their messages of support to rape survivors at universities.

They have done this – as next week the Australian Human Rights Commission will release the first ever national survey into sexual assault at universities.

I am nervous that when this happens, the universities will try to dominate the conversation with their damage control strategies.

And the simple fact is that the voices and views of students and survivors should not be forgotten.

Their voices should take centre-stage.

Because when the results of the survey are released next week, we need to remember that behind every statistic, behind every number there is a living, breathing human being.

A human being who – in many cases- has been deeply betrayed by their institution.

We need to remember that students and survivors are not just numbers. They are not just statistics. There is a human face on this issue.

And - as a community - we need to stand with all rape victims and survivors and say: I believe you. It’s not your fault. You’re not alone.

So today – as we launch this campaign - and I invite all other members of the community (alumni, staff, students, members of the public and media) to stand with survivors. And to say: I’ve got your back.

As a community we need to rise up and say: No more.

Nina Funnell is a sexual assault advocate, survivor and journalist who has previously studied, taught and guest lectured in the media and communications department at the University of Sydney. She was the creator of the EROC photo campaign which draws its inspiration from Project Unbreakable. To find out more about the End Rape On Campus Australia campaign, you can click here.

If you or anyone you know is struggling, call the 1800 RESPECT 24-hour national helpline on 1800 737 732.

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