Sexual assault: What is your university doing to prevent it?

It's known on campus as 'the red zone': the time at the beginning of the university calendar year when female students are most likely to experience rape.

And it's not an urban legend.

Sexual assault counselling services around the country have disclosed that the number of calls for help from female university students increases during and immediately following Orientation Week events at Australian universities.

"There are always increased reports of sexual assault around O-week," said Chrystina Stanford, CEO of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre. "Sometimes the increase comes just after O-week when things have settled down a bit."

Karen Willis, the executive director of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, said her organisation also experienced an increase in calls for rape crisis counselling from university women following O-week events.

"The [residential colleges] give us a stack of work," Ms Willis told the ABC.

"[College students] who are outside of the normal controls and measures of their communities back home [may] feel they now have the freedom and the entitlement to act out on their impulses.

"Others have heard stories from older brothers and dads about 'sowing wild oats' and enter university thinking that it's now their time to enjoy 'sex on tap'. It leads to a culture of sexual entitlement."

So, with hundreds of thousands of students around the country starting or returning to university this week, what are universities doing to address the issue of rape on campus?

If the student safety guides being spruiked by many universities are any indication, freshers will be given unhelpful and potentially dangerous tips on how to avoid "unwanted sex", such as "be prepared to scream and shout if attacked" and don't walk alone to the local phone box at night.

Of course, while such advice may be well-intentioned, it is grounded in victim-blaming attitudes and will fail to help young people navigate relationships respectfully.

Will your uni run sexual assault prevention training?

A recent survey of college halls and residences attached to Australian universities found that only one in six residences said they would run sexual assault prevention training involving a suitably qualified sexual assault service in 2017.

Of the 214 residential facilities contacted by community campaigning group Fair Agenda, just 35 indicated they would run training as per the best practice national guidelines.

These guidelines were established in 2009 by the National Association of Services Against Sexual Violence.

A further 49 residences indicated that they would run alternative forms of sexual assault prevention training — including 'in house' training — while the remaining 130 residences said they did not intend to run any training, or were otherwise unwilling to respond to the survey.

Professor Moira Carmody, who specialises in sexuality, gender and sexual ethics at Western Sydney University, said many of the alternative programs that are currently being delivered in colleges fail to meet best practice standards.

"The evidence is clear that one-off programs don't work at changing behaviour," Professor Carmody said.

"[University or college staff] shouldn't be running these sessions unless they have been trained by people who know what they are doing. Many of [these staff] may themselves be struggling to work through their own values and assumptions about sexual assault, and they could actually do more harm than good."

She added: "It seems that a lot of universities are not applying their own standards of academic rigour when it comes to the sexual assault prevention programs they implement. This suggests they don't understand that wide body of international research [on how to effectively deliver sexual assault prevention training] or ... they are not taking the issue seriously."

Of further concern, Sharna Bremner from End Rape On Campus Australia said many programs still put the onus on women to avoid being raped.

"There is a long history of sexual assault prevention initiatives at universities which target women and reinforce myths about stranger danger," Ms Bremner said.

"From rape whistles and security shuttles, to better lighting campaigns and self-defence classes, these things might seem well intentioned but they often miss the mark.

"Students are far more likely to experience sexual assault by someone they know and trust, often in a familiar setting. What would be far more effective is consent-based education that focusses on building communication skills and respectful attitudes."

We don't need better lighting, we need better attitudes

Having previously worked in a university setting, I'm inclined to agree.

When we see examples of groups of college men in Australia chanting, "No means yes, yes means anal" or making stubby-holders that say, "It's not rape if it's my birthday" or creating "pro-rape, anti-consent" Facebook groups, the answer is not better lighting: it's better attitudes.

Similarly, when we read news reports of college men raping barely conscious women, or photographing them as they shower, or climbing through windows and sexually assaulting them as they sleep, it's hard to understand why so many sexual assault prevention campaigns are directed at women, but fail to engage men.

Indeed, a cursory review of the 'student safety' pages on Australian university websites reveals many universities are still teaching "don't get raped" rather than "don't rape".

Take, for example, the University of Canberra website, which warns students that "being drunk or out of it on drugs ... is the most common reason why young people end up having unwanted sex" and that "unwanted sex" — that is, rape — "is linked to issues such as accidental pregnancy and sexually transmissible infections (STIs)".

The Party Safe page does not explain any of the other impacts of rape, such as the trauma it can cause victims.

Instead, it advises students to "pace yourself if you are drinking and stay alert. When you are drunk or using drugs, you are more likely to do things you normally wouldn't do when you are sober. Other people may take advantage of you when you are out of it ... Remember it is not just strangers who may prey on you".

Last year, the Australian Catholic University published similar "tips for dating safely", which include: "Avoid secluded places until you know your date better; Do not give mixed messages [and] be sure that your words do not conflict with other signals such as eye contact, voice tone, posture or gestures".

And that's just the tip of the iceberg:

Melbourne University advises students to "offer to pay half the bill [on dates] so that you won't feel under any obligation to return the favour".

Wollongong University instructs potential and existing sexual assault victims to "walk in groups of two or more after dark; stay in well-lit areas and keep to well-constructed paths; carry a personal alarm or be prepared to scream and shout if attacked".

Griffith University tells students: "When you are socialising, don't leave your drink unattended, don't drink too much. Keeping a clear head makes it easier to make wise decisions when it comes to personal safety".

And in advice that sounds like it came straight from the 1950s, Federation University reminds students that "it is not safe to walk alone to your local telephone box at night, especially on weekends when people who may have been drinking are also walking around".

Of course, there are still some individuals who, having grown up hearing similar sorts of advice, probably assume that this is all just good, common sense.

But the problem is that this advice does not deter perpetrators from assaulting women (and since it's not actually aimed at perpetrators, we shouldn't expect it to).

It does, however, successfully deter many victims from reporting their assault for fear of being blamed for having done the 'wrong' thing.

Indeed, because 'avoidance tips' don't address any of the underlying causes of sexual violence (including power and control, sexual entitlement, and gender inequality), such advice doesn't seek to prevent rape, it merely seeks to re-order who gets raped.

In other words, when women refrain from getting drunk or wearing short skirts (or any of the other million things we are told daily not to do) we're not really preventing violence from occurring.

We're merely attempting to downstream the problem to the next woman by saying to rapists: "Hey, don't rape me! Rape that other woman, the drunker woman, the woman in the even shorter skirt".

Women are never 'asking for it'

Worse still, when we tell young women to avoid certain behaviours, the message we end up sending to young men is that women who do these things are breaching a moral code.

They are 'bad' women who are misbehaving by being too loud, too drunk, too sexual. They are in need of correction. They are asking for it.

Having spent many years talking to university students about these issues, it would appear that at least some of the sexual violence that takes place is motivated by a desire to regulate and punish women who are seen to be pushing social boundaries, including boundaries around acceptable gendered behaviour.

At other times, sexual entitlement, a lack of consent education, and a lack of concern for the autonomy of women, can contribute to a perpetrator's choice to sexually offend.

Which is why sexual assault prevention programs need to be grounded in far more than just good intentions.

They need to move beyond fear-based 'stranger-danger' programs or self-defence initiatives.

They need to recognise young people as sexual beings immersed in complex social, sexual environments.

Rather than just giving warnings, we need to help young people unpack sexual consent and give them useful skills and strategies to navigate relationships respectfully.

If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault or domestic violence, support is available by contacting 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.

Nina Funnell is an author, journalist and anti-sexual assault advocate

(Picture: A university student carries a mattress that says, 'Don't rape'; ABC)