Uni bonk ban tells us what we already know

UNIVERSITIES have been asked to consider introducing a so-called 'bonk ban'.

The ban would demand that PhD supervisors who become sexually involved with their students declare their carnal interest and step away from their scholarly responsibilities, lest the integrity of the set-up be compromised and be seen to be, or the student feel preyed upon.

Cue more laughs and derision from already-amused vultures of our culture from overseas.

Isn't it self-evident?

Are these not standard, societally-expected ethics and standards most professionals would abide by?

They certainly are, and most universities have codes of conduct that say as much already in place.

Anyone with a modicum of common sense would know that being romantically entangled and marking someone's work, or sharing a bed and being a boss make for a fraught situation from all angles.

It is as obvious as PM Malcolm Turnbull stating the ministers, whether married or single, must not engage in sexual relationships with their staff. Just because our deputy PM got into a pickle doesn't mean everyone else is at risk.

Conflicts of interest are considered from the start of a professional life and a hierarchy must be honoured where matters of love and loins are concerned.

In fact, in the PhD-supervisor relationship it is even more important that romance must not influence interactions, because it is not just wages and immediate work outputs that are affected, but whole futures and career possibilities.

Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia. (Pic: supplied)
Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia. (Pic: supplied)

The chief executive at Universities Australia Catriona Jackson said on radio that a PhD student whose liaison with their supervisor had become dangerous should 'just get a new person to come and supervise so that power imbalance is broken'.

Anyone who has done a PhD knows that changing supervisors is not a matter of 'just', and not because of anything sordid or inappropriate.

The relationship is intense, because the reason for the union is deep and specific, difficult and long.

The study must be internationally unique and the subject under study must be agonisingly particular, so having an able, experienced guide through the maze is essential.

But to recommend implementing stated limits seems like putting a fence around a yard that is already contained.

Don't we have in-built, pre-programmed knowledge of this? Who doesn't know that? What institution would not frown on it? None that I know of.

The bonk ban call was presumably made to stoke the embers of another media frenzy.

It is the first anniversary of the release of the Human Rights Commission report on sexual harassment and assault at Australian Universities this week.

That report caused enormous ripples on release, with media attention carried aloft on the emergence of the newly-minted #metoo movement.

Vice-Chancellors jettisoned pre-prepared vows to clean up their campuses and policies and supports were reinforced, even though they had been in place before.

It has been said that the nation's 39 universities have taken more than 800 actions to crack down on sexual assault or harassment in the year since, including providing greater access to counselling and reminding students of any respectful relationships programs available.

It all makes sense in the current empowered, hyper-aware climate, even if not all of those measures were needed because procedures were already in place.

If the only thing stopping lecturers from sleeping with students is an official decree, then there’s a problem.
If the only thing stopping lecturers from sleeping with students is an official decree, then there’s a problem.

But as I wrote a year ago, the report did not reveal university campuses to be a roaring hotbed of sexual assault or harassment.

The survey found that half of the students surveyed had felt harassed and 6.9 per cent reported being sexually assaulted - defined as being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will - in 2015 and 2016. That is horrific.

But only 1.6 per cent of students said the assault took place at a university-related activity, with most of these occurring at a social event.

Suddenly, the universities-are-sex-pits claim were revealed to be overstated.

The study was always going to turn up something concerning, because it was born of pressure from survivors and other advocates.

When you look under beds at any coeducational, institutional setting populated by adults for sexual interactions, you are inevitably going to find some evidence of sordid sauciness.

Within the report, there was an interchanging of references to sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual violence, and they are clearly disparate.

Blurring them in people's minds dilutes the seriousness of the most damaging cases and weakens the understanding of the extent and complexity of issues around unwanted sexual contact.

But the report is the gift that keeps on giving.

Time for a mature, forward-thinking approach instead of demanding the spotlight be shone on matters that are already under watch.

Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalist and university lecturer.