Universities and Sexual Violence: A Primary Prevention Primer

Released this year, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Change the Course report found that 51% of university students had been sexually harassed in 2016, and 10% of female students had been sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016. While the research methods have been contested, the results about prevalence are broadly supported by to national survey data, which tells us that in Australia 1 in 5 women and 1 in 22 men experience sexual violence since the age of 15.

The report offers a unique opportunity for Australian universities to consider their role in the prevention of sexual violence. Indeed, as part of its recommendations the AHRC advised that universities “develop a plan for addressing the drivers of sexual harassment and assault.” In essence, this asks universities to play a role in primary prevention; that is to engage in ‘whole-of-population’ initiatives that address the key drivers of sexual violence in society.

What are the key drivers of sexual violence?

 There is a strong consensus in the research literature that gender inequality is the primary driver of sexual violence. This inequality is driven by societal factors which include rigid gender roles, harmful stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, male peer relations that promote disrespect and aggression towards women, attitudes that excuse or minimise the seriousness of violence against women, men’s control of decision-making, and limits on women’s independence in the domestic and public sphere.

Universities are “priority settings” for primary prevention

With this in mind, it is important that those working on developing university plans recognise that their role is not merely preventing students and staff harming each other during their time at the institution, but rather in shaping societal structures, norms and practices well beyond their walls. Indeed, tertiary institutions have been recognised as “priority settings” for primary prevention due to their great potential for large-scale societal change. Alongside schools and workplaces, universities are vital institutions influencing the future workforce and community more broadly, exactly at a time when the majority of their population are sexually active and at highest risk of victimisation.

To better understand what actions might be undertaken within universities, it is useful to understand the nature of primary prevention. In violence prevention, primary prevention means efforts to change societal norms. In effect, just as with the health models, primary prevention of sexual violence consists of strategies aimed at a whole of population to address the underlying drivers of that violence.

Often, initiatives that might be represented as primary prevention do not actually meet the criteria. For example, the implementation of CCTV on campus is a strategy that ignores the private nature of most assaults, is not well supported by research for its violence-prevention effects, and arguably does little to alter the structures, norms and practices that drive sexual violence. Online consent modules have recently been touted by a number of universities as part of their suite of approaches. These may be a useful means of educating staff and students about rules but, again, there is little evidence to suggest that a one-off strategy will work to genuinely reduce the drivers of sexual violence in the community.

The AHRC has recommended education through direct participation programs. These approaches have the potential to partially address the key drivers if they focus on helping participants develop the tools and strategies to recognise and challenge sexist norms, attitudes and behaviours (in both themselves and others) rather than, for example, solely encouraging ‘point of violence’ bystander interventions. To be effective, direct participation programs must also be underpinned by a ‘theory of change’, work best when delivered face-to-face over a number of sessions, and should be piloted, evaluated and refined before being delivered widely (as would be expected at institutions that place such high value on the merits of research and developing an evidence-base!).

A well-planned, ‘whole of organisation’, values-based approach

This raises the question of what best-practice primary prevention strategies should entail. The best way to reduce sexual violence, as the AHRC explains, is to “engage all levels of the university (including students)”. This involves a ‘whole-of-organisation’ approach that involves every single member of the university working towards a shared goal of gender equality.

In essence, what we’re talking about here is a hearts-and-minds, change of culture approach. This is not just a matter of didactic education for students, posters that warn that sexual violence is unacceptable, or mandatory compliance modules. Rather this is about having a university-wide conversation about what it means to be a member of that community, defining shared values and then ensuring that those values are upheld with pride in every single interaction at every single level of the university and in life beyond the institution. Universities are perfectly willing to market that students will be “future-ready”, “ready for life and work” and “worldly” or to promote “leadership for good”, but what does that really mean when it comes to gender equality, and being a member of the community committed to ensuring it both at the university and beyond?

In order to genuinely engage in primary prevention that alters norms, structures and practices at a societal level this can’t just be a matter of a fragmented suite of potentially contradictory and unsupported approaches. Both significant funding and comprehensive planning are required. Where a university might start this process is by coming together to outline the values of the board, staff and students. This should involve genuinely consultative conversations about the shared values that define members of that community, and include a strong focus on gender equality. A primary prevention audit of approaches might also be in order. One question policy makers might ask themselves is “which of the strategies we are currently planning will genuinely improve gender equality and change society for the good?” If the plan doesn’t include these then perhaps its time to return to the drawing board!


Ruth Liston is an associate lecturer in Justice and Legal Studies at RMIT. She is a Member of the Consortium of Sexual Violence Researchers (CASVR) and the Gendered Violence and Abuse Research Alliance (GEVARA).