Last week’s release of the Human Rights Commission’s report on sexual assault in universities last week saw the media and campus administrators erupt into a state of full-blown moral panic.
And could you blame them?
The report’s headline figure that a staggering 51 per cent of university students had been sexually harassed in the last year portrayed our campuses as overrun by lascivious sex pests, unmoored from the rules of civil society and law itself.
While tempers and emotions ran high, the condemnations from political leaders, Vice Chancellors came in thick and fast.
Fortunately, closer examination of the report proved talk of a university sex crime epidemic premature. For a start, only half of the respondents who made up the jaw-dropping 51 per cent figure reported experiencing harassment on campus. In terms of the types of harassment reported, half included staring and offensive comments or jokes. The problem here is that these terms cover a broad spectrum of behaviour which from the standpoint of creating a safe and inclusive campus environment, aren’t helpfully lumped together.
Everyday breaches of social etiquette – telling a crude joke to the wrong audience, an overzealous attempt at flirting that falls flat – shouldn’t be conflated with bona fide harassment, which of course, should never be tolerated.
What makes an off-colour joke, cringeworthy compliment or unwelcome date invitation is in the eye of a beholder. And unless an admirer makes their feelings known, how are they to know if their affections are reciprocated? One of friends fondly recalls the story of being asked out by her partner six times before she reluctantly agreed on his seventh invite. Does that make the first six attempts an
Too be sure, navigating the cut and thrust of life as a uni student doesn’t account for the whole 51 per cent figure. But the fact that 68 per cent of respondents did not report the incident because they did not believe it was serious enough provides some reassurance that they what they encountered wasn’t gravely perverse, and they were happy to leave these awkward encounters at just that.
Meanwhile, figures of sexual assault came in at 1.6 per cent for 2015 and 2016. While that is still 1.6 per cent too high, it compares favourably with the rate of sexual assault among the population at large of 6.9 per cent, putting paid to any suggestion that campuses were uniquely prone to sexual misconduct.
To top it off, the survey’s lowly response rate of just 9.7 per cent strongly suggested that those with something to say on the subject were more likely to take part, artificially boosting percentage of students who had encountered harassment. Indeed, this distinct possibility is more than conjecture – it was noted in the fine print of the report itself.
Hard-headed analysis by Bettina Ardnt, Janet Albrechsten, Paul Murray and Andrew Bolt were among the few dissenting voices of reason amidst a public outcry that had already found students guilty of systemic harassment.
However, a cursory glance of the Human Rights Commission’s own website reveals the flawed process behind the campus harassment survey was not just misguided, but utterly detached from the Commission’s own learning on the subject. It’s doubtful at least a chunk of the responses used to reach the 51 per cent harassment stat would’ve passed muster under the Human Rights Commission’s very own definition of sexual harassment, as laid down in the Sex Discrimination Act:
Sexual harassment is an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances.
By contrast, the categories in the Human Commission survey were extremely open-ended. Being stared at (with no stipulation that the stare have a sexual overture) hearing an offensive comment of a sexual nature (not necessarily related to any person present in the conversation) might be uncomfortable, but it’s not entirely clear this would satisfy the requirements of unwelcome behaviour that would offend or intimidate a reasonable person.
These problems are of more than academic concern. The fraught experience of universities in the United States’ ought to serve as a lesson of allowing universities to assume the role of judge, jury and executioner in cases of alleged criminal misconduct. There are currently 170 cases before United States Federal Courts commenced by students suing their universities after being expelled based on an allegations of sexual misconduct, without any due process or access to the legal protections usually afforded to someone accused of such a serious crime.
Scores of these students expelled by on-campus kangaroo courts have had their innocence vindicated by judgments awarding six-figure payouts, too little too late after suffering lifelong humiliation, and reputational damage.
Right now, Australian universities are facing demands from the political and media elite for action to be taken to root out the allegedly diseased culture on Australia’s campuses. But any response that proceeds on the basis that more than half of students are victims of serious harassment is at serious risk of overreach. A more heavy-handed approach to regulating student behaviour, surveillance of speech and a clamp down on boozy events are surely all in the offing; all moves that would infantilize students at the very time they should be embracing adulthood.
The manufactured crisis of the last week also holds two broader lessons well worth heeding.
First, it has neatly illustrated the hapless impotence of the Australian media when it comes to scrutinising so-called news served up in the form of pre-packaged press releases from seemingly authoritative sources. In fact, The Australian was the sole news proprietor to shed any critical in its initial coverage of the campus report. And given the highly sensitive nature of the report’s subject matter, it’s no surprise even our most frank and fearless politicians were missing in action.
So knowing this, how can we confidently rely on journalists to probe and scrutinise the implementation of complex, big-spending programs like the NDIS, the NBN or billion dollar infrastructure projects like the West Connex tunnel?
Second, it is a timely reminder that despite wearing their much-vaunted independence on their sleeve, government bodies can, and often do pursue their own agendas that are anything but non-partisan. Upon its release, the Human Rights Commission made plain it expected universities to undertake a comprehensive response to the ‘facts’ borne out by the survey. It is now using its public funding to sponsor social media advertisements demanding ‘swift action’ from our universities.
But action based on dubious evidence, free from political and public scrutiny is no sound basis for sound policy-making.
That is why it’s important to speak truth to power. Government organisations which use the guise of their independence to pursue ideological ends on the taxpayer dime weaken our democracy, leaving us all the poorer for it.
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