What is ‘sexual harm’?

You may have heard the term ‘sexual harm’ used at La Trobe University and wondered what this means. You may also be wondering why we use the term disclosure or formal reports when we talk about sexual harm. Here are some answers for you from Safer Community, part of La Trobe’s Health and Wellbeing team.

Why do we call it ‘sexual harm’?

At La Trobe, we use the term sexual harm to encompass all non-consensual behaviours of a sexual nature that causes a person to feel uncomfortable, frightened, distressed, intimidated or harmed either physically or psychologically.

Sexual harm occurs when there is no free agreement, or when someone is being coerced or manipulated into any unwanted sexual activity. Sexual harm also occurs when someone does not have the capacity to give consent; this includes when someone is so affected by alcohol or another drug that they are incapable of giving consent or withdrawing consent.

Sexual harm includes behaviour which constitutes sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. Sexual harm can occur through the use of technology or in a physical space.

Why use the term sexual harm?

The University uses the terms of sexual harm to ensure that the University community can seek support for concerning behaviours of a sexual nature regardless of whether it meets the definition or threshold of sexual assault, rape or sexual harassment. We don’t want it to be a barrier for someone seeking support because they didn’t think it was serious enough or didn’t meet certain legal definitions or criteria.

In many organisations, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are dealt with quite differently. Some look at sexual harassment as a civil matter, while others consider sexual assault as a criminal matter. This distinction is confusing for many people, especially students from a diverse cultural and language background.

Sexual Harm is illegal

All forms of sexual harm are against the law and La Trobe University policies and regulations and may constitute student or staff misconduct.

What is the difference between a disclosure and a formal report?

At La Trobe, students can make a disclosure of sexual harm without proceeding to a formal report.

Disclosure is when a person tells someone about their experience of sexual harm for the purpose of seeking support, advise, and for precautionary or safety measures to be arranged.

A formal report is when a person provides a formal account of their experience to someone within the University that has the authority to investigate or act.

Where can a person make a disclosure?

A student may contact Safer Community to disclosure an incident of sexual harm. Safer Community is the central area of the University with trained professionals where disclosure can be made. Safer Community will coordinate the University’s response and support to prevent a victim/survivor having to make multiple disclosures and therefore causing further trauma or distress. The University will respond to a disclosure of sexual harm with compassion and empathy.

Why won’t the University treat every disclosure as a formal report?

Sexual assault is about the use of power and control by the perpetrator. Taking control and decision-making power away from the victim/survivor may cause further distress, trauma or prevent them from coming forward to seek support in the first place.

There are many barriers and reasons why a victim/survivor may not want to make a formal report. These include:

  • Imbalance of power
  • Fear of retaliation or victimisation
  • To maintain a relationship with the perpetrator
  • May feel that they may not get the outcome they want
  • Fear the University may not take the matter seriously
  • That it is a private matter and reporting may lead to the spread of information or cause reputational damage
  • May need more time to process the experience
  • May not be emotionally ready to go through a formal process
  • Cultural considerations prevent them from seeking a formal outcome

The University is therefore guided by the victim/survivor as to whether a matter should proceed to a formal report. Under certain circumstances where there may be an imminent danger to the victim/survivor or in the interest of the safety of the community, the University may make an information report to the police but will consult the victim/survivor if doing so.

For more information on consent or how to help someone who may have experienced sexual harm, visit Safer Community’s Sexual Harm webpage.