A damning report has detailed explosive claims of a "sadistic" hazing culture inside elite residential colleges on Australian universities, with dozens of people alleging vile misogyny, sexual assault and dangerous bullying of young students by older residents.
End Rape On Campus Australia, a group dedicated to addressing sexual violence at universities, on Monday released its report 'The Red Zone' -- so named for the term that sexual assault researchers have given to O-week, or orientation week, the first week at universities where new students traditionally meet new people and party. The report's authors said O-weeks are "a time of pronounced vulnerability, particularly for new students".
"Research has recently found that residential colleges suffer from particular problems and one in eight attempted or completed sexual assaults at the University of Sydney (USyd) colleges will occur during... O week," the report said.
Lead author Nina Funnell, who won a Walkley journalism award in 2017 for her reporting on campus sexual assault, details claims of unsavoury incidents in universities including male students masturbating into shampoo or body wash bottles left in bathrooms, "fresher" or new students being verbally abused or bullied by older students, being subjected to offensive chants, and being forced to drink dangerous amounts of alcohol. The report details historical incidents as well as those reported as recently as 2017.
"We've been able to chart almost a century of abuse, hazing and vile conduct at these institutions. Today we are standing with all survivors of sexual assault and hazing from all colleges around the country, but especially the Sydney University colleges," Funnell said.
One female student and former resident at St John's College at the University of Sydney claimed new students had dead fish poured on them in one hazing incident.
"All the male and female freshers were locked in the uni-sex bathrooms. We were then completely doused with buckets of dead rotting fish. It was revolting and it stunk," she was quoted as saying.
"There is a sense among the older students of 'we had to be at the bottom... I had to experience that and now so will you'."
St John's College rector Adrian Diethelm told the ABC the college had commenced an investigation into the claims.
In a statement, the University of Sydney said it was working to address the issues raised in the report.
"The University of Sydney is aware of some of the accusations in the report and it is for this reason that we are working with the colleges and [former sex discrimination commissioner] Liz Broderick and her team on improving campus culture for the University and five of its residential colleges. Those colleges have accepted all recommendations and their implementation is underway. The process for one residential college – St Pauls – is ongoing," the statement read.
The university also said it would be enforcing alcohol rules through O-week at residential colleges.
"During Orientation Week the University's Student Liaison Officers will also take part in a number of presentations at the University's affiliated residential colleges as part of their own individual Orientation programs. The University's alcohol policy will be enforced during Orientation Week," the university said.
A 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission survey of 30,000 university students found that, in the 2015-16 period, one in ten female university students were raped or sexually assaulted; 23 percent of those were assaulted in a "university setting"; around 200 sexual assaults occur in a university setting each week; and that college students were seven times more likely than non-college students to have been raped or sexually assaulted on campus.
Professor Catherine Lumby, of Macquarie University, wrote in a foreword of her discomfort on reading the report.
"Reading this brilliant and meticulously researched report over the past week all those stories came back to me. To be frank, I had to put the document to one side at times to process the full extent of abuse and assault that permeates our college and residential halls," she wrote.
"It gives a graphic and detailed account of bullying, harassment and assault in these residences. It makes for sickening reading."
The University of Sydney's student representative council president Imogen Grant called the incidents detailed in the Red Zone report "vile" and criticised the "complete failure" of colleges to stamp out the behaviour.
"Hazing normalises a culture whereby personal boundaries and consent are ritually violated and contributes to a culture whereby students with more power feel entitled to the bodies of those in marginal positions," Grant said in a statement.
"For too long these colleges and their councils have protected acts of misogyny, racism and homophobia by their residents. At the end of the day, this is a structural problem that is entrenched in the college acts. It's not going to just be changed in a shakeup of council and consent training."
The National Union of Students' women's officer, Kate Crossin, said she was "appalled".
"These colleges are turning a blind eye, they have chosen to prioritise money, prestige and their own reputations over their students wellbeing," she said in a statement.
The report's authors made a number of recommendations for universities, such as improved oversight of student residences, providing counselling services.
EROC, Fair Agenda, the National Union of Students and The Hunting Ground Australia Project are calling on the federal government to launch an inquiry into sexual violence on university campuses. More information, and a petition to sign, can be found at Fair Agenda's website.
The full report is available on EROC's website.