I Want It, So I Will Have It
CW: mentions of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence.
Kendra Murphy’s life is divided into before and after.
At age 18, Kendra* left home to pursue a Bachelor of Arts. “My major is performance of theatre and I sub major in gender studies”, she says, sitting on a dated deck chair in her back courtyard. Kendra on-stage is easy to picture. She speaks with clarity, gesticulating wildly with her hands as she talks about her upcoming graduation. It’s hypnotising.
According to the ABS, 17 per cent of Australian women are sexually assaulted after the age of 15. Now 21, Kendra became a part of this statistic in June of 2014, halfway through her first semester at university, when she was sexually assaulted at her residential college, St Andrew’s, at the Sydney University.
“It was a victory dinner at my college, and I had a few drinks in my friend’s room before we headed down to the party, but I obviously drank a bit too much. I don’t remember leaving that room or anything after”, she says.
Kendra woke up the next day feeling sore and lethargic, with pain around her wrists and in her body. There was vomit on her bed, other people’s clothes on her floor, and a “huge” hickey on her neck that “felt more like a bruise.”
Various people at her college messaged her, telling her that she had “fucked Peter**.” But if she had, Kendra didn’t remember.
Something was off, that much Kendra knew. And then another friend told Kendra they had found her the night before, repeatedly saying, “I didn’t want to have sex with Peter.”
Kendra took it to the college administration and they began an internal investigation. They concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove that Kendra had been assaulted.
Prevent, not react.
At a UTS Students Association meeting on April 4, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Shirley Alexander announced that UTS will run a campaign about how to report any kind of assault, spurred by the recent Universities Australia Respect. Now. Always. campaign.
Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, however, does not believe that this solves the problem. “We can have the best reporting mechanisms in the world, we can have great counselling services, we can have terrific police response”, she says.
“But the problem with all of those is that by the time [they] kick in, it’s already too late. That violence has become a part of that person’s life story. What we need to do is prevent it.”
How can we prevent the behaviour of somebody else?
To do this, one must find the root of the problem. In this case, it’s the tolerant attitude of the universities; one that is explained through the feminist theory of ‘Rape culture’.
Rape culture is an umbrella term that encompasses the nuances of gender inequity, such as masculinity and victim blaming, to explain certain beliefs around sexual assault.
A visualisation of the nuances of Rape culture. Graphic created by Ranger Cervix and Kate Seewald, of ActionAid / Safe Cities for Women, 2017.
Ms Willis acknowledges that the first step is looking at the culture, attitudes, and behaviours on campus, and seek to change the attitudes and behaviours of those that think violence is acceptable. Next is understanding why people use violence, and creating a targeted approach to eliminate the belief that violence is an acceptable solution.
“There’s a small group of men who let all other men down. They’re the men that think that they have a right, that they’re entitled, that they can use a lot of myths like ‘she gives out to everybody’ or [the] “I want it so I will have it” type attitude, they’re the men who use that violence … they’re the ones that we really need to be starting to influence”, Karen explains.
Kendra recalls the traditions and “weird rituals” in the college that are laughed at, but she found them “gross” and confronting. And once she started voicing her opinions about them, she was “ostracised.”
Kendra feels this sense of entitlement stems from the college culture of, “your sex is everyone’s sex, your body is everyone’s body.” She vividly remembers: “At O Week, if you were caught hooking up with somebody on the dancefloor, the next morning at breakfast, you were forced by your ‘friends’ to make out with them in front of the whole entire cohort, no matter if you felt comfortable or not doing it.”
Rape culture is also perpetuated by casual victim blaming, a by-product of the drinking culture. “I still remember one of my good friends, I messaged them and I said, “Isn’t it rape if I can’t remember what happened?” and they said, “No, it was your choice to drink, and it’s just what happened.” And I remember that really hitting me hard, because this was a very close friend of mine.”
Kendra finished her sentence and looked down at her lap.
More effort in the long term, but a more efficient solution.
At the urging of Women’s Officers around Australia, university administrations are looking at compulsory education modules for all students to complete prior to starting the semester.
According to the Director of Equity and Diversity Unit, Tracie Conroy, UTS has already made a start to educate the Resident Networkers (RN) of UTS Housing programmes. In a 12-hour programme named Sex and Ethics, of which a sizeable portion is spend discussing consent.
“Housing is the most vulnerable place [for sexual assault]. We would love to broaden that out to every student on campus but obviously that’s very resource intensive. So we’re just at the moment doing some investigating around online courses. We want to make sure our students are aware of our expectations of what appropriate behaviour is”, she says.
Kendra Murphy is trying to move past her experience.
Towards respect, now and always.
As a result of the Universities Australia initiative, many universities have developed teams with administration and student stakeholders in an effort to create more effective processes.
“When a person experiences sexual assault, they never forget that experience. It just doesn’t happen”, says Karen Willis.
Kendra has used her experience to speak out about sexual assault, but she will never forget how unsafe she felt after the assault. “That’s the thing that really got to me. Because this was where I lived. If I couldn’t feel safe there, where could I?”
This article discussed sexual assault.
Specialist support is available by calling the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
* Kendra has consented to Vertigo’s publishing of this piece.
** Not his real name.