In April, the University Council endorsed a paper written by the PARSA and ANUSA Presidents that addressed longstanding concerns concerning the terminology used to categorise and define sexual assault and sexual harassment. Each meeting of Council includes a de-identified breakdown of student safety incidents reported at the ANU into a series of categories. The paper replaced the term 'allegations of unwanted sexual attention' with 'allegations of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment' after the former category was challenged for its usefulness of a category, the accuracy of its description, and the University's obligation to support students. The paper also created a category for reporting of historic instances of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment.
Whilst this may seem like an insignificant change it actually pushes the ANU to the fore as a leader in the Australian higher education sector on reporting standards. Why? The need to discontinue using 'unwanted sexual attention' relates largely to the category not being consistent with sexual assault and public health service definitions and does not accurately reflect the seriousness of the issue to the experiences of ANU student survivor/victims. Changing the terminology to use public health service terminology reframes the responsibility of the university to be one of supporting survivors who report instances of sexual violence.
The ANU Counselling Centre definition of 'sexual assault' denotes all allegations of unwanted sexual attention including rape, sexual abuse or other forms of sexual violence as defined by the person reporting. This definition is consistent with sexual assault services and public health service definitions of sexual assault that recognizes sexual assault as being primarily about power and control. The definition acknowledges that every survivor/victims experience of sexual assault and sexual harassment and their response to it is different, that the effects of sexual assault and sexual harassment can be short term and long term, and range from severely debilitating to mildly debilitating. It also recognizes that the effects of one form of sexual violence can be equally as traumatizing as another. Sexual Assault support services work with victim/survivors who often do not speak out about their experiences of sexual assault for a very long time. This is because of fear, shame and the lack of community understanding about the range of circumstances in which sexual violence occurs. Services prioritize safety, the management of distress and symptoms of trauma over the details of the assault.
The role of the University is to support students; it is not to determine criminal liability in response to reports of alleged sexual assault or sexual harassment with a view of passing legal judgement. Consequently it was argued and endorsed that having the category 'allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment' was preferable owing to it being consistent with sexual assault and public health services, as well as prominent bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission - directly reflecting the language used in the national university student survey. Additionally it reflects the role of the University in providing a support role to students and is consistent with current staff and student training to support those reporting.
Is it a small step in the big picture of sexual violence in universities? Undoubtedly. But it was an important one for the ANU to take. Not only does it pave the way for other universities to follow but it is an important statement about the responsibility of universities to support their students who are survivors/victims of sexual violence.
Alyssa and James