Following the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s “Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities” in August this year, there have been some attempts to discredit the methodology adopted by the commission.
By any measure, a sample size of over 30,000 responses is not insignificant. Every few weeks, the Australian public receives the “latest polling figures” for how people will vote if an election were to be held either nationally or in their jurisdiction at that time. These figures are presented as a national data set yet are based on fewer than 3,000 responses. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “personal safety survey”, released in 2012, which measures individuals’ experience of violence – including sexual violence – and therefore is reporting on the same area as Change the Course, had 17,050 survey respondents, slightly over half that of the university survey, yet it is considered to be nationally representative.
The commission’s Change the Course report is groundbreaking. For the first time we have data on the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities. Additionally, we have data on who experiences these behaviours, who the perpetrators are, where it occurs and how it is reported. All 39 universities funded the commission to do this work with a desire to obtain an evidence base about the nature of the problem, which would inform the steps they take to address the issues.
We engaged Roy Morgan Research, a market research company with expertise in this area and in working with the commission to measure the prevalence of discrimination in a range of different areas, to conduct the survey and assist us to analyse the results. The commission also asked an independent expert, David Bednall, to conduct a review of our results to ensure the validity of our findings. Some commentators have noted David Bednall’s words of caution regarding our findings about the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Obtaining accurate data about sexual violence is extremely challenging and must be approached sensitively. As the independent report notes, there are various reasons why people may decide to participate in such a survey and, equally, why they may decide not to. Survivors of sexual assault may feel that the experience will be too traumatic, while those who have not experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment may not believe that their experiences are relevant.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to assess individuals’ motivations for responding or not responding.
However, we are confident that by inviting participation to the survey among a representative sample of university students and by weighting the results according to the stratified population at each university, we have created as accurate a picture as possible about the scale of the issue. Differences between the unweighted or raw data and weighted data were on the most part found to be modest. Additionally, the results of the survey were found to have a standard error of +/- 0.4% at a 95% confidence level. In other words, if the survey were to be repeated again, there is a 95% chance that the results would be in the same range as found in this survey.
There is a growing body of evidence highlighting the fact that rates of sexual violence against women in Australia are unacceptably high.
The results of the commission’s survey add to what we already know about the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual harassment and assault in the Australian community more broadly. The personal safety survey in 2012 found that almost one in five Australian women had been sexually assaulted since the age of 15, compared with 4% of men.
The results also showed that very few people reported their experiences of sexual assault and that 18 to 24 year old women – university age – were at greatest risk of experiencing sexual violence.
The results of the university survey support these findings and further demonstrate the urgent need to address rates of sexual violence across our entire community.
In addition to the results of the national survey, the Change the Course report contains powerful stories and quotes from more than 1,800 written submissions. This is the largest number of submissions ever received by the Australian Human Rights Commission in relation to a single issue.
While unlike the national survey submissions cannot provide a quantitative figure on the scale of the problem, they do provide an indication of the magnitude of the problem and the desire for change.
They also highlight disturbing attitudes towards women and victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, which seek to minimise the scale of the issue or dismiss individual’s experiences.
We know, and have known for some time, that sexual violence is an issue which affects women across the whole Australian community. The Change the Course report confirms that universities are yet another setting in which these behaviours are occurring and where urgent action is needed to prevent these incidents from happening.
- Kate Jenkins is the Australian sex discrimination commissioner
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010