Six years ago, I sat in my university college dorm room trying to process the increasingly intense conversations around sexual violence on campus. It was only my second year as a university student, and my first year had been full of ‘quintessential’ experiences: O-Week, college, new friends, parties. However, the shininess of those experiences was starting to wear off, and at the same time, stories that pointed to the ugly underside of college and university culture were beginning to crescendo.
Over in America, the high-profile Brock Turner case, where then 19 year old Turner sexually assaulted 22 year old Chanel Miller whilst she was unconscious, made waves across the world. The documentary Hunting Ground also premiered, sparking further outrage around the culture of sexual harassment and assault in American college campuses. We were forced to look inwards at Australia as several well-known colleges in Sydney were criticised for permitting and encouraging ‘rape culture’, a culture that enables misogynistic behaviour, and normalises issues of sexual harassment and assault.
During this time, my best friend Angelique (later my Co-Founder) and I would catch up and share with each other what was happening at our respective universities, and among our peers. These conversations often involved a layer of self-judgement: Did we invite criticism or leering looks in the way we behaved or dressed? Could we have been more outspoken saying ‘no’ when we felt uncomfortable? What else could we do to better protect ourselves? We later realised these thoughts are shared by so many who are affected by sexual harassment and assault, and too often it is our instinct to turn inwards and critique ourselves. Ultimately we realised it wasn’t us. It was a systematic failure of our education systems - a failure to teach us consent, to teach us how to identify, respond and report sexual harassment and assault. Most of all, a failure to explicitly tell us we had every right to speak up. We, and many young people around us, felt a deep sense of frustration, anger and mistrust - that despite the buzz, and articles and lip-service, that this momentum would fade into obscurity, without tangible action that would create safer spaces for young people.
We founded Consent Labs in 2015 out of these emotions, with the goal of delivering a tangible program that would empower the young people after us with knowledge that our secondary and tertiary educators failed to equip us with. The 2017 National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities, detailing the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault on campuses across Australia, only provided evidence for what we already knew through our lived experiences.
Today, Consent Labs is a not-for-profit, youth-led and female-run organisation that empowers high school students, tertiary students, parents and educators with relevant and inclusive consent and respectful relationships education. We deliver evidence-based, expert-backed consent education by young people directly for young people.
Since then, there has been a lot of momentum thanks to individuals like Chanel Contos who emphasised the need for consent education, and others like Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Dhanya Mani who highlighted that these issues of sexual harassment and assault are pervasive throughout society, including at the highest level of government. While such advocacy has driven many secondary schools to implement consent and respectful relationships education, the tertiary sector has lagged behind.
So why is it that universities have not been able to implement meaningful programs to address these issues? The fundamental barrier lies in their approach. Their strong preference is via online delivery, often e-learning modules, that can be rolled out all at once. They often explain it is difficult to run lectures or workshops across multiple cohorts and degrees. I certainly acknowledge that there are real limitations and challenges to what universities can achieve - they cannot singlehandedly reduce the prevalence of sexual assault in Australia. Despite this, what they CAN do is educate students, give clear guidance on reporting options, and ensure they feel supported doing so. However, the online courses meant to provide this education are often either not mandatory, or only required once during their degree - even when they are mandatory, students are incentivised to “get through it” so they can access exam results or complete course requirements. It becomes hard for these measures not to feel like a ‘check-box’ activity.
We at Consent Labs have long known the evidence in relationships and sexuality education (RSE) shows that for education to be effective, it needs to be reflective of the experiences that young people are living. It cannot be a once-off delivery, and must build on knowledge and experiences. It needs to be inclusive to truly engage all young people. It cannot only focus on legal consequences, but rather the importance of respect and boundaries. When tackling issues of sexual harassment and assault, it needs to be conducted in a way that facilitates these conversations safely.
To us, what is most disappointing about the 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) is that many factors the universities have the power to change, have not changed. The knowledge of university support and reporting channels is abysmal (1 in 2 know nothing or very little about the formal reporting process for harassment or assault), and the proportions of students who choose to seek support or make formal complaints with their university remain disturbingly low.
The results of the 2021 NSSS report are indeed “distressing, disappointing and confronting” as described by Professor Dewar, Chair of Universities Australia and the Vice Chancellor of La Trobe University. This is even more true in light of the lack of progress since the 2017 report, highlighting that despite programs and initiatives, it has simply not been effective.
At this point, “sorry” is simply not good enough. Young people deserve the right to safety, and to have access to effective measures so that the next time this survey is run, we see tangible improvements.
Finally, to the young people who are currently at university, we empathise with you. We share your frustrations. We will continue to advocate and fight for you, because that was us six years ago.