Promoting cultural change

By Rosanne Kennedy

Campus sexual assault is not a new issue, but it has only recently received significant media attention in the United States and more recently in Australia.

This is due in part to a number of high-profile cases in the US, incidents on Australian campuses and significantly, the release of the American documentary, The Hunting Ground. The film, which interviews numerous women and a few men about their experiences of sexual assault on campus, focuses on the response (or lack thereof) by various university administrators and the effects of this inaction on the lives of those interviewed.

The Hunting Ground Australia Project brought the film to Australia in 2016 and it was screened on most campuses including ANU. Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt showed strong leadership on the issue, introducing the film and pledging to promote a safe environment on campus.

During the same period the Human Rights Commission, in collaboration with Universities Australia, undertook a national survey to collect data, for the first time, on the incidence of campus sexual assault in Australia. This is important for establishing the prevalence of the issue.

The Australian context is somewhat different than the US. We don't have the same mix of fraternities, university sport and alumni funding, which has led universities to protect their reputations, often by silencing student allegations of assault and mismanagement. Yet, the issue of campus sexual assault and university responses is equally pressing in Australia.

In collaboration with ANU alumna and University of Melbourne lecturer, Dr Hannah McCann, I have been analysing The Hunting Ground, controversies surrounding the film in the US and the broader issue of campus sexual assault policies. Our analysis is informed by decades of feminist debate regarding the pros and cons of various approaches to regulating sexuality in the workplace and the university.

The film advocates strongly for women. However, in the US it has been criticised for failing to present evidence on how race, sexuality and disability intersect with sexual assault, and particularly the differential rates at which African-American women and men are targeted, either as victims or alleged perpetrators of assault.

So what lessons can we take away from the film and the controversy surrounding it?

First, it is imperative to recognise that sexual assault encompasses a broad range of cases. These include forceful or violent non-consensual sex; a ‘grey zone’ of messy sex, often involving alcohol or drugs in a party context, where consent, or lack thereof, has not been clearly communicated, or non-consent has been ignored; and offensive sexualised behaviour (ie, using social media to ‘score’ women’s bodies) which creates an atmosphere hostile to women and students of diverse sexualities.