This culture must change

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
Rape culture. There could be fewer phrases more uncomfortable, more worrying, more sickening. Contemplation of such a culture is something most would prefer not to do.

But too many - one in five women, statistics tell us - have personal and tragic stories of sexual abuse.

Does that amount to a rape culture? If it does not, how high do the figures need to be?

Those at the coalface know the true level of sexual assault is difficult to assess. It is still often hidden and under-reported.

The reasons for this are many and complex. Even as society changes and it is meant to be ``easier'' to report sexual assault, many internal psychological barriers remain, as well as frustrations with formal processes.

They include a fear of not being believed, widely acknowledged by those involved in the area of sexual violence as one of the chief reasons why sexual abuse is not reported.

All of these factors and views will now be under examination as one of Dunedin's institutions finds itself under scrutiny for alleged sexual misconduct under its roof.

A series of claims about Knox College has been published in the Otago student magazine Critic Te Arohi from women who say there is a toxic culture at the college and sexual assault and harassment are not taken seriously.

Four female students have spoken of alleged sexual assault, including harassment, groping and rape, while they were at the college between 2015 and 2017, all saying either their cases were not properly dealt with, or they did not feel comfortable coming forward. Since then, another former student has said she was raped by a former Knox resident while at the college five years ago.

Many have praised the Critic article, while some have criticised it, saying there is no pattern of trying to minimise assault in the college.

The Presbyterian Church owns Knox College, and its Assembly Council has appointed two lawyers to provide an independent and confidential forum for students with historic grievances.

Knox's board of governors, which took control in 2015, has declined to comment on any claims of assault that happened before that date. Chairman David Richardson said he was confident the college could deal with any problems that related to current students.

The independence of the forum is to be commended, and it is to be hoped it is effective, whatever the definition of that is for those who have been sexually assaulted.

It is vital that all at the college, and indeed other colleges, can feel safe in their halls of residence and elsewhere. Dunedin prides itself on welcoming young people to its city for privileged years of learning and freedom. But statistics show those aged 16-24 are at the highest risk of sexual assault of any age group. We cannot ignore assaults that take place, and must take every measure to stop them from happening.

University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne has, over the past three years, led a major review of the policies and procedures for sexual misconduct of any kind anywhere on campus and in its colleges, and has offered support to affiliated colleges such as Knox.

Sexual violence in any form is abhorrent and inexcusable. Sadly, sexual assault is not peculiar to any one institution or demographic. Nor are underlying attitudes that continue to minimise sexual harm.

University of Otago sexual assault researcher Dr Melanie Beres said people developed views, including some ``entitled attitudes'', towards sex before they came to university, and there needed to be conversations in schools before people reached university age.

The idea misunderstanding caused sexual assault was a myth, Dr Beres said. Four studies she had carried out suggested young people could tell whether someone was consenting - even if the other person did not explicitly say anything.

Her words should serve as a warning.


Entitled attitudes are soon reformed by a police charge.