USYD fails female students in more ways than one

Thom Mitchell investigates the double standard by which the University has been operating when it comes to defending the safety and privacy of their students.

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In May last year, Alexander Wright – a student, employee and resident at the University of Sydney – took a naked photo of a woman at his campus accommodation during sex without her knowledge or consent.

He later showed the photo to numerous people off his mobile phone.

The University, and more importantly the law, appear to have failed the victim, who has suffered ongoing harassment.

“I’ve been groped, there have been rumours about me. Before I introduce myself people make sexualised comments towards me,” the woman told news.com.au’s Rebecca Sullivan.

“The photo became a badge of honour for him. It became a manhood thing. I feel like a prize or an award to be won, as though men think if they sleep with me, then they can prove they’re a man,” she said.

The victim has drawn attention to the wider issues around the sexualisation of women, telling news.com.au: “I do not want the man that abused me to be the scapegoat. I don’t think he is the big issue here. He’s part of the problem. There are wider issues on campus and his actions have just highlighted that.”

Wright has avoided prosecution by police due to a legal loophole, exposing the barriers to justice faced by victims of sexual harassment.

In late October, about six months after Sydney University was made aware of the sexual harassment, USYD advised Tharunka that they had finally terminated Wright’s employment as a resident liaison officer at the University-owned and operated campus accommodation.

Wright continues to live and study on campus.

In a signed letter of apology, a copy of which has been obtained by Tharunka, Wright admits to taking a photo of the woman “in a state of undress” and without her knowledge or consent.

“I showed it to other students that we both know,” Wright also confessed in the letter, which deploys language that shares an uncanny resemblance with the wording used in the law that provided a legal loophole allowing Wright to escape charges.

Under NSW law, it is illegal to photograph a person “in a state of undress…for the purpose of obtaining, or enabling another person to obtain, sexual arousal or sexual gratification” knowing that consent is not given.

Wright could have faced two years in jail for such actions, but he escaped charges due to a legal loophole.

The offence, which police say is covered under sections 91K and 91L of the Crimes Act, is a summary offence, and charges can not be laid (except in “aggravating” circumstances) if the incident is reported more than six months after it occurred.

The victim only learned of the photos’ existence eight months after it was taken.

She reported the incident to police, but because the six-month limitation dates from the time the photograph was taken, Wright has not been charged.

“A photo doesn’t stop being a photo after six months,” the woman told The Sydney Morning Herald.

She said the photo shows her with her eyes closed, her face, breast, torso and part of her groin exposed.

Apparently, criminal law expects that such a photograph would lose its power to hurt, humiliate and sexualise a woman in a public and degrading way after six months.

The fact that criminal law – which acts to express societies’ values and delineate what are acceptable behaviours through punishment by the state – has not acted to reprimand Wright says something very bleak about the way the female body is sexualised and objectified.

The University of Sydney has also come under fire for not publicly punishing Wright.

The University has refused to provide details of what punishment Wright has faced, but a spokesperson said that he had been reprimanded.

Defending this secrecy, the spokesperson said, “The University views student discipline as a matter between the institution and the student concerned.

“Making this information public is not part of the punishment for any student.”

The late decision to remove Wright from his position as a resident liaison officer followed talks with a Student Consultative Committee about the University’s handling of a sexual harassment complaint, the University spokesperson said.

Wright’s position was unpaid, and it “does not involve pastoral care but requires a high standard of personal conduct and behaviour to be maintained at all times”.

Wright’s position may not have involved “pastoral care”, but he did exercise some authority over younger students in his job as a resident liaison officer, and he continued to do so for the six months it took for the University to sack him.

In late October, Honi Soit, USYD’s student newspaper, detailed the University’s investigation, taking aim at the process which appears to be “shrouded in bureaucracy and secrecy”.

“I had to fight to get Student Affairs to consider it a breach of misconduct and investigate my claim. It took months to process it [from January to August],” the woman told Honi.

The University eventually facilitated a meeting between Wright and the woman in May this year, months after the woman reported the harassment.

The University “was reluctant to proceed with any such meeting, offered little to no assistance, and [the victim] had to push them to organise a meeting,” according to Honi Soit.

“I had to fight for it,” the woman said.

“I was told to run the meeting and was given no help or direction from the Head of Student Affairs.

“I was not kept up to date with the investigation and would often not hear from Student Affairs for weeks. Towards the end of the investigation Student Affairs would not return my calls or emails. I had to push them to find out if the case had been closed or not.”

At the May meeting, the victim asked Wright to make a public apology in the student newspaper, but Tharunka understands that Wright has not done so.

Honi reported that Wright had agreed to the woman’s request, but the University spokesperson told Tharunka that Wright “gave no undertaking to make an apology of this nature”.

Despite Wright’s confession of guilt, “The University took the view that any action [including a public apology] that followed from the meeting should be the students’ choice,” according to the spokesperson.

The University would not facilitate a second meeting and told the woman it was her responsibility to do so, according to the report by Honi.

However, the victim said it was “not possible for me to organise all the parties [his friends especially] to attend an apology meeting”.

Responding to the University’s taciturn response, the victim told The Sydney Morning Herald that “justice done in the dark can’t be seen to be justice”

Wright’s actions have also been concealed by a decision made by the University’s Student Representative Council (SRC), which pushed Honi Soit to censor their original story.

The paper retracted Wright’s name and image within five hours of the story being published, after the SRC was contacted by the University and other parties who expressed concerns for the “privacy” and “safety” of the perpetrator.

The editorial team of Honi was critical of the SRC’s instruction but said they were “bound to comply” with decisions made by the organisation that prints and funds the paper.

This is not the first time the paper has been censored.

Last year, a front cover featuring close-up photographs of 18 Sydney University women’s vaginas in a non-sexualised way was blocked at the eleventh hour.

The cover was intended to draw attention to unnatural and unrealistic perceptions of the vagina, but according to legal advice given to the SRC, the photographs contravened section 578 of the Crimes Act.

The eighteen women whose vaginas had been photographed for the cover responded in a statement published by Honi Soit:

“We are tired of society giving us a myriad of things to feel about our own bodies. We are tired of having to attach anxiety to our vaginas. We are tired of vaginas being either artificially sexualised (see: porn) or stigmatised (see: censorship and airbrushing). We are tired of being pressured to be sexual, and then being shamed for being sexual.

“The vaginas on the cover are not sexual. We are not always sexual. The vagina should and can be depicted in a non-sexual way – it’s just another body part. ‘Look at your hand, then look at your vagina,’ said one participant in the project. Can we really be so naïve to believe our vaginas the dirtiest, sexiest parts of our body?”

The paper was eventually published with thick black bars obscuring each woman’s vulva – which the Crimes Act considers to be “indecent articles”.

The consensual publication of the photographs, which the women considered empowering, could have resulted in a maximum of 12 months jail time.

And yet, Wright has avoided criminal charges because his actions were not known to the victim for more than six months.

Presumably he continued to share the image – which the woman says was even shown at parties – until police deleted the photograph eight months after it was taken.

That criminal law condemns the publication of a newspaper cover designed to empower women by challenging unhealthy and unreal perceptions about the female body, while at the same time effectively excusing the distribution of a secret, sexualising image of a woman that has caused incredible anguish, is deeply wrong.

That Sydney University took six months to remove Wright from his employment, has refused to publicly disclose what other forms of punishment Wright has faced, and has pressured the SRC to censor Wright’s identity, sends a deeply worrying message.

Wright’s victim has called on the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University to “speak out publicly against what has happened to me and what has happened to other students as well”.

The University’s spokesperson told Tharunka that the Vice-Chancellor was engaged in ongoing discussions regarding “suggested improvements to the University’s processes to handle such complaints”.

However, Tharunka understands that Dr Spence has not publicly condemned Wright’s actions.

The woman told news.com.au that her experience highlighted a broader problem with “rape culture at Sydney University”.

Her experience of sexual harassment highlights a broader culture of patriarchy, too.

The woman’s ordeal demonstrates how that culture is propped up by bad laws and the silence and inaction of institutions like Sydney University – an institution that should be leading the way in addressing the overwhelming sexualisation and structural disadvantage faced by women.