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  • Peter Francis Fenwick

The Rape Culture in Australian Universities

Richard Peynet

Imagine you are the Vice Chancellor of an Australian University, an extremely demanding job. You are approached by the Australian Human Rights Commission because they are concerned that a rape culture is prevalent in Australian Universities.

They seek your commitment to a survey on sexual assault and sexual harassment to measure the extent of the problem. How could you possibly decline?

"I work at the greengrocers - what do you do?"

When the survey is done, it reports that “around half of all university students (51%) were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016.” When broadcast, it makes for compelling national news. The AHRC makes nine recommendations and seeks your commitment to implement them. How could you possibly decline?

Yet when you finally get a moment to examine the report in detail, there are many things that disturb you. You are concerned that flaws in the survey may have led to a serious overstatement of the problem. You are concerned that the recommendations create expensive administrative procedures, but may not address the underlying causes. You worry about the impact on your University’s reputation from being associated with such shoddy work.

I think you must decline.

The importance of definitions

What constitutes “sexual assault” and “sexual harassment”?

Whether an admiring glance, a joke, or a kiss is sexual harassment depends on the context and the response of the recipient. In many cases, it may not be.

University students are still learning about relationships. They are experimenting. They are testing behaviours to learn what works and what doesn’t. They may be a little awkward or gauche. They will give an appreciative smile. They will give compliments. They will joke. They will make personal enquiries. ("I work in a greengrocers - what do you do?") They will invite each other to have a coffee or a meal. Perhaps they will go dancing together. As they get to know each other better they may touch fondly. They may even develop sexual relationships. This is all part of the courting rituals that lead to marriage and families.

We should be very wary of introducing laws and policies that inhibit this process. It would be a sad society that banned flirting.

Flaws in the Survey

The survey was initiated by advocacy groups. In their eagerness to promote their cause they have overstated the extent of the problem.

The survey would have been more precise:

If there had been some attempt to verify even a sample of the claims.

Some actions, perceived as harassment, may not have been so. Accepting all claims as fact inflates the results.

If the question had been “Did this happen to you on more than one occasion?”

Participants were asked to report if the action had happened to them on at least one occasion in 2015 and 2016. The above phrasing would have allowed for the possibilities that

  • the harassment was unintended, or

  • the alleged perpetrator, having been rejected, had got the message and desisted.

If the report had acknowledged different degrees of harassment.

In the case of women,

  • staring made up 40% of the complaints;

  • jokes 18%; and

  • intrusive comments 12%

- a total of 70%.

The total for the tactile harassment categories –

“unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing; inappropriate physical contact; and sexual gestures, indecent exposure or inappropriate display of the body”

– represented only 15% of complaints.

The students’ own assessment of this differentiation may be adduced from the reasons given for not seeking support:

  • 72% said “I did not think it was serious enough”, and

  • 61% said “I did not think I needed help”

If the report’s own qualifications of the survey results had been displayed more prominently.

In its introduction, the report states:

“The survey data has been derived from a sample of the target population who were motivated to respond, and who made an autonomous decision to do so. It may not necessarily be representative of the entire university student population.”

The survey was distributed online to a stratified sample of 319,252 students (approximately 30%). Only 30,930 responded. The low response rate – less than 10% of the sample (3% of the population) - would exacerbate this bias.

The fact that the advocacy film, The Hunting Game, was shown on campus prior to the survey may also have biased the results.

Also in the introduction, the report warns that:

“Caution must be taken in relation to our results which are projected to the population of male students. These may be an overestimation of the rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment experienced by male university students.”

Reporting that 35% of male students were sexually harassed in one year should have raised the alarm bells about the veracity of the survey.

In fact, the figure of 63% of female students being harassed in one year is also implausible despite the report’s claim that there was no “response bias”.

If the harassment figures had also been for two years.

The survey was taken over a two-year period. The assault figures were reported for the two years. However,

“in relation to the prevalence of sexual harassment, the reported figures relate to incidents that occurred in 2016, as these figures were deemed to be more reliable survey data.”

(my emphasis)

No explanation is given and we are left wondering whether the figures for two years would have been so high that they would have subjected the survey to ridicule.

If data from outside the University campus had been excluded from the headline reporting.

Events that happen on public transport may be of interest, but they are not the responsibility of the University.

If you exclude events that happened on public transport then:

  • the harassment average drops from 51% to 21%, and

  • the assault average drops from 6.9% to 1.6%.

It would have been more honest to highlight the lower figures.

If we were to adjust the statistic for harassment of women ( 63% ) by

  • Eliminating the figures for stares, jokes and personal inquiries (70%)

  • Eliminating incidents that happened on public transport (59%)

  • Allowing for incidents that were misconstrued and not harassment at all (say 20%)

it would be reduced to 6.2%. That is less than 10% of the reported figure. It would be even lower if we were to account for the bias of "those who were motivated to respond".

In summary, all this points to the conclusion that the survey results are unreliable and the problem has been exaggerated.

Implementing policy based on such flawed research would be unwise and could lead to counterproductive results.


1846 students submitted their personal stories to the Survey. These are an invaluable source of information about University culture. They highlight serious social problems – for instance, young people routinely getting paralytically drunk, and repulsive initiation practices in University colleges.


The Survey makes nine recommendations. They provide many jobs for administrative staff and expert consultants. They deal with how the university should process incidents of sexual harassment and assault. They make no attempt to address the causes.

The recommendations are summarized below:

  1. A widely-representative advisory body to help the Vice Chancellor take direct responsibility.

  2. A plan developed by “individuals and/or organisations with expertise in sexual violence prevention”

  3. Lots of support services and reporting processes; widely disseminated information about them; measuring and evaluation.

  4. Commissioning an “independent, expert-led review of existing university policies and response pathways in relation to sexual assault and sexual harassment”; and in the interim to “draw on sexual violence counselling expertise to develop and review processes”.

  5. Training staff and student representatives in how to respond to disclosures “delivered by an organisation with specialist expertise in this area”, whilst avoiding “vicarious trauma”!

  6. Collect, store and analyse data and recommend improvements to processes.

  7. Audit the university’s counselling services especially regarding the number of staff trained in working with sexual assault survivors.

  8. Repeat this survey every 3 years!

  9. Commission an “independent, expert-led review of the factors which contribute to sexual assault and sexual harassment” in university residential colleges.

There is no assessment of the cost of the recommendations. No goals are set to determine success. It appears that the new structures and jobs would be permanent.

Overall, it is an extravagant set of recommendations which infantilizes the student body and the academic staff.

By accepting additional responsibilities, the university is incurring extra costs whilst at the same time leaving itself open to potential legal suits for no real benefit.

For a better response, try some subsidiarity

A much more effective response would come from devolving responsibility to those involved.

There is a need to improve cultural norms about what is acceptable behaviour. The objective should be to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and sexual assault, not simply to cope with its aftermath.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Our society needs to address behavioural issues and cultural norms that have developed in teenage years well before students arrive at University. This is primarily a task for parents and schools.

  2. The students themselves need to take individual and group responsibility for their actions and their behaviour.

  3. Students should be encouraged to apply peer group pressure and ostracism to serial sexual perpetrators.

  4. Academic staff should set the tone, and discipline bad behaviour in classes, tutorials and labs. Women being harassed should feel comfortable reporting that immediately to the lecturer and asking to be separated from the perpetrator.

  5. Staff and senior students in residential colleges should address the bad behaviour and cultural norms that have developed in their institutions, especially those relating to initiation ceremonies and respect for privacy.

  6. There is a need to think through what is the university's responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility. That would include Students, Parents, Schools, Churches, Clubs and Societies, Counselling Services, The Alcohol Industry, Transport Authorities, and the Police.

There is no need to replicate work that is being undertaken by, and rightly the responsibility of, others.

The Political Milieu

As Vice Chancellor, you are under extreme pressure to go along with the crowd, to be part of the team, to join everyone else in implementing the AHRC recommendations. Yet you must resist. You cannot let your university’s reputation be sullied by being associated with this flawed research and its misdirected response.

My alternative recommendations are directed at minimising the incidence of the problem. To the extent that it still exists you will need to acknowledge that sexual assault is a criminal offence and should be reported to police. You may wish to set up an appropriate reporting system for complaints and a referral system for counselling support for victims. But the occurrences should be infrequent and the effort small, so you will need nothing like the bureaucratic monster proposed by the AHRC.


You can obtain a copy of the AHRC report here.


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