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Source: University of Otago

Friday 9 October 2020 10:32am
A new Otago study has investigated student experiences of sexual assault in New Zealand and found few survivors disclose their experience to health professionals or support services.
The research by Te Whare Tāwharau, the University of Otago’s Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Centre, has been published today in the latest edition of the New Zealand Medical Journal.
Associate Professor Melanie Beres.
It is the first published study to examine New Zealand university students’ sexual assault experiences since 1991, when 347 students on one course were surveyed.
The latest study involved a sample of 1540 students, or about 8 per cent of the student population on the Dunedin campus, who completed an online survey about their experiences, and whether they had reported it to a health professional or support service.
The study found 28 per cent of survey respondents, or 431 students mostly between 18–23 years old, recorded experiencing some form of sexual assault in their time as a student.
Out of those 431 students, 178 had told no one about their experience, while 179 had told one supporter and 74 had told two or more supporters.
Few respondents had sought medical or health support, including mental health support.
Te Whare Tāwharau Academic Director Melanie Beres says this result was expected, based on similar studies.
“This survey project was initiated to get a clearer picture of experiences of sexual violence among students so we are able track change over time using this survey as a baseline.”
The University of Otago has recently implemented a number of initiatives to help address sexual violence including the establishment of Te Whare Tāwharau, a nationwide-first initiative, and the implementation of a sexual misconduct policy, she says.
“Sexual violence is not a problem unique to universities or university students.
“We need broader societal level change, in order to really solve the problem. Ideally this would include working with children and young people from a much earlier age and support them to have happy and healthy relationships.”
The study found survey respondents were most comfortable reporting their experiences to health professionals such as GPs.
Associate Professor Beres says this is because students might already have established relationships with health professionals, or may be seeing them for another reason and disclose their assault.
“It would be good to see health professionals provided with professional development training in how to handle disclosures and also how to ask questions that may elicit a disclosure.”
Associate Professor Gareth Treharne.
Training should be gender inclusive, for instance many health professionals might not think to ask men if they have experienced sexual violence, she says.
“Sometimes it takes a caring professional asking a direct and sensitive question for people to start talking.
“These professionals can be instrumental in connecting people with further specialised support.”
At the time the survey was carried out in July–August 2019, Te Whare Tāwharau was still a new service, so many students may not have been aware of the support on offer, or had experienced sexual violence before the service had opened, Associate Professor Beres says.
Co-researcher Associate Professor Gareth Treharne says research shows many survivors of sexual violence do not report their experiences or feel able to seek support.
“It is an act of bravery to report sexual violence and the survey provided an anonymous opportunity to report experiences in addition to the opportunity to seek face-to-face support at Te Whare Tāwharau.”
Sexual assaults were categorised in the survey by non-consensual sexual contact, attempted coercion, coercion, attempted rape, and rape.
Fifteen per cent of respondents said they had experienced an incident that would meet the definition of rape.
Women, and sexual minority respondents were over-represented as victims, and men were identified as the majority of perpetrators.
Māori and Pākehā respondents recorded the highest rates of sexual assault at 31 per cent in both groups, followed by 28 per cent of Pacific Island respondents, 19 per cent of Asian respondents and 14 per cent of non-White/non-Polynesian ethnicities.
The research team plans to conduct the survey every two years as part of the overall evaluation of the University’s initiatives to help address sexual violence.
For more information, please contact:
Associate Professor Melanie BeresTe Whare Tāwharau Academic DirectorEmail
Associate Professor Gareth TreharneTe Whare TāwharauEmail
Liane Topham-KindleyManager, Media EngagementUniversity of OtagoTel +64 3 479 9065Mob +64 21 279 9065Email