Stories of sexual assault and harassment at UNSW: in the victims’ own words

By Marc-Daniel Sidarous and Kat Wong 

What lies underneath the statistics of sexual assault and harassment at UNSW? Tharunka asked the UNSW community for their accounts. Here, we present the responses in full. 

Content warning: sexual assault, harassment, stalking. 

Between the years 2016-2020, 75 complaints of sexual assault or harassment were reported to UNSW. Of these cases: 

  • 20 alleged perpetrators were either staff or contractors. 
  • One alleged victim was a minor 
  • The university found only 1/3 of allegations to be substantiated fully or partially, and 
  • Of the 49 cases where the alleged perpetrator was identified, and the allegation was found to meet the legal definition of sexual assault or harassment– all but one was male.

This information, obtained directly from UNSW through a Freedom of Information request, provides the statistics to back up the reality many on campus have faced for a long time. 

According to former SRC President and Women’s Officer, Angela Griffin, the reported number is an undercount. 

“We know from [the 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission ‘Change the Course’ report] almost one in every two students has experienced some kind of sexual harassment or assault.” 

While acknowledging the university still has a long way to go, Griffin said the university’s reaction to the report has been great. 

“I was really proud to be a student at UNSW when the report was first released.” 

“The university responded strongly to the release of the report. They took it and seriously and they followed through over the years.” 

“There is, of course, much more the university could and should be doing. It’s not just the university’s responsibility though, it’s everyone’s.” 

One prominent alleged perpetrator is former UNSW law professor and current advisor to controversial Independent MP Craig Kelly, Frank Zumbo. The academic was let go by the university in 2015. As recently as February this year, colleagues of Mr Zumbo had accused the man of unwanted hugging, kissing, and cyber stalking, and during his tenure at the university, as reported by the ABC, Mr Zumbo was accused by former student Kate Nichols of attempted grooming

“Mr Zumbo would persistently contact her over Facebook asking to catch up outside of class,” according to the ABC report. Mr Zumbo denied knowing Ms Nichols when contacted by the broadcaster. 

Griffin believes for all the good work the university and others are doing to address the problem, nothing will change until our society changes. 

“Nothing can fundamentally change until our society changes. We live in a rape culture. 

Until attitudes towards women change at large, it won’t matter how proactive the university or societies are, this will keep happening.” 

Tharunka reached out to UNSW students (former and current) to come forward with their stories and collected their testimonials through an anonymous Google Form posted on our Facebook page and in UNSW Discussion group.  

If you have a story you would like to tell about sexual misconduct regarding UNSW students or staff, you can submit your account anonymously to the same testimonial form here.  

Tharunka also sought comment from one of the residential campuses named in the allegations we received. Isabelle Creagh, the head of UNSW owned and operated Residential Colleges, said: 

“We stand with women and believe women. Every year we ensure that all residents complete affirmative consent education and we have implemented survivor-centric response frameworks at all residential colleges. These tools were developed in consultation with the UNSW Gendered Violence Research Network and UNSW student organisation Arc. We are constantly reviewing and taking active steps to improve our education and responses to sexual violence and we acknowledge that there is more work to be done. The fact that sexual assault occurs in any context is tragic and unacceptable.” 

We received many submissions. Any names which may have been included are omitted for privacy or legal reasons. 

Account 1, 2018. 

The incident didn’t happen on campus, but I am a student at UNSW. I was drinking with my boyfriend at the time, and I got really really [bolding added by writer] drunk. I threw up four times and passed out on a bed.  

“It was a new relationship at the time so we hadn’t discussed boundaries relating to sex but it was extremely clear that I felt sick and I was not trying to initiate sexual activity. About an hour into my sleep, I woke up to him having sex with me. I could barely comprehend what was happening, but I managed to push him away. The next day I addressed it with him.  

“He simply said its normal and all his friends do it.” 

Account 2, 2019. 

“I have a friend that was sexually assaulted by someone in her Law faculty. 

“They went to a party with other students, and when it started getting late, she was offered to stay the night in the guest room so she wouldn’t have to catch the train to go home.  

“During the night, one of the guys there came into the room and began having sex with her while she was asleep. She woke up while he was inside of her and completely froze.  

“When she confronted him the next day, he told her that he thought she’d enjoyed it and that she was remembering it wrong.” 

Account 3, 2019. 

“I was chatting to a boy I’d never met one night at a club with our mutual friends, and the two of us got an Uber back to college where we both lived. We went to my room and were just chatting, and I don’t remember how but we fell asleep on the same bed.  

“I woke up to his body on top of me, kissing me with his hands up my skirt. We hadn’t even touched before I’d fallen asleep. He got up and left shortly after, and it wasn’t until I’d told my friends the next day that I realised that it was wrong.” 

Account 4, 2017. 

I was stalked by another college resident for 3 months and they only did something about it when a friend who was a prized scholarship recipient threatened to move out and make it all super public.  

“He took up living in the common space right outside my room so he could know my comings and goings and would press his ear against my door to listen in on conversations with friends (was caught in the act multiple times). Threw items at my door and slammed a common area door at me after I rebuked him. Threatened to kill himself if I didn’t reciprocate his affections. Persisted in contacting me two days after I asked to break off all contact for at least two weeks. Bought $2000 earrings “to guilt you into spending more time with me”. Changes subjects and majors to enrol in the same labs as me.  

“The college minimised and dismissed my experiences, when I was crying in their office and suffering from the effects of the trauma.” 

Account 5, 2019-2020. 

“I lived at a college on campus. After breaking up with my boyfriend, who lived at the same college as me, for sexual and psychological assault in 2019 I was subjected to stalking, intimidation and threats to myself and family by that same partner throughout 2020. We both still lived at the college.  

“…I told the college about it, numerous times. I reported it to the IRC. My college told me that it was ‘his home as well’ and that it seemed as though I was the one who had the issue, so I should be the one to leave.  

“After 6 months, me filing a complaint with the police, and providing college with a 20+ page detailed report of all the times he had harassed me, college issued him with a warning. They said I couldn’t report it to UNSW because then the police would need to be formally involved.  

“In the end I left college.  

“The warning they issued him with did nothing and I was scared for my safety. He was following me around, sending me long emails, making fake social media accounts to stalk me and my family. College knew this and did nothing about it. In fact, when I suspected he had stolen an item from outside of my room (hanging on my bedroom door), I reported it to the college and asked for CCTV footage and they told me it was too expensive to procure this.  

“This year (2021), he was kicked out of college for sexually assaulting a girl and attempting to sexually assault a guy in plain view of the rest of the college. College issued a statement saying they ‘had heard hearsay things about his behaviour before, but nothing concrete’.  

“They also stressed he was sorry, and this experience helped him to learn. They told the girl there was not enough evidence to charge him with anything.” 

Account 6, 2018. 

“I was at the Halloween party at the Roundhouse, and I was turned around, dancing with a friend. A guy pinched my butt and walked away.  

“I’m pretty sure I knew who he was but… it felt disgusting because it looked like he does it often because he was quick to walk away, but I caught a glimpse of what he looked like from the back. I felt gross.” 

Account 7, 2020. 

“It was during the pandemic so there weren’t many people on campus. Around 6pm. Man asks to sit at my table even though most of them are empty. I don’t object. Later he starts talking to me and asking heaps of personal questions. I try not to answer as I’m uncomfortable and basically alone. 

“He asks for my social media. I say I’m not really comfortable with that. He continues asking. I say I don’t have Instagram. He says Facebook. I say no. Snapchat? No. Then he says let me have your number. I say I can’t remember it. He takes my phone out of my hands and goes to my contacts to find my phone number there.  

“The whole time I was very clear I didn’t want to talk to him. The next day he asked my friend (who he must have seen me with earlier) where I was because I didn’t respond to his text.” 

Account 8, 2021. 

“[Redacted] college: things have been kept hush hush but there are 7 allegations of rape this year already.” 

Account 9, 2018. 

“While attending a college at UNSW, there was a known sexual predator also at the same college. Everyone knew that he would target intoxicated first years. Despite being allegedly reported multiple times, nothing was done and incidents were swept under the rug.” 

Account 10, 2015. 

“This event occurred off campus, but was with another UNSW student I met at a Roundhouse party. I had been talking to this guy for a while, and was naive to what he wanted from me. One night he met me late after I went out with friends. I was incredibly drunk and although he came back from a festival, appeared to me sober. He walked me into an isolated park. 

He started forcing my hands over his genitals and pulled me onto the grass to have sex with him (I was a virgin at the time too). He didn’t ask me what I wanted, just went ahead with it. In the end we didn’t have sex since I was so tense from it being my first time. However, I did give him oral.  

I did not consent to this. There was no way I could when I was that drunk. At the time I didn’t realise I was assaulted.  

It was only weeks after the event I realised I was violated.” 

Account 11, 2021.  
Recently, the directors/executive board of a rather prominent society in UNSW decided it would be fun to play pranks on their recently chosen subcommittee members. This would have been alright – had the pranks been in good taste – however, unfortunately, that was not the case. 

Instead, what occurred to some people was a sheer invasion of privacy and downright inappropriate – as for whether it was legally sexual harassment I don’t know (I don’t happen to be too well versed in the technicalities). Whilst this did not occur to me (I sensed something very fishy), I am good friends with some people who did fall for the ‘prank’ (not sure if I should call it a ‘prank’ since it was in such bad taste…).” 

“Students were told to send a video of them dancing to certain songs which were very sexual in nature via Facebook messenger under the impression only one person would be viewing the video – however, the video was actually played to an audience of multiple people without their consent. The student was a male, however, I’ve heard a number of female students were also asked to do a similar thing.  

When the video failed to be meet expectations – i.e. “it’s too PG”, students were asked to re-film the video, making it increasingly inappropriate in nature. 

Account 12, 2020. 

“A girl I don’t know very well grabbed my crotch without permission while she was tipsy at a party, I was sober since I was helping to organize the event. 
I told her it wasn’t okay and she didn’t apologize, she kind of laughed about it with a “haha why not?” sort of demeanour. At the time I was confused about it and still haven’t told her it was inappropriate.” 

Account 13, 2020. 

“[Redacted], (a complete stranger to me but on his profile said he was a UNSW student) spammed me on Instagram for having a birthday party during Covid – it was a party with my own family and we all live in the same house, so definitely not breaking any rules. When I told him that, he then said he’d still call the cops on me, whilst making racial and sexual insults. When I posted about this on Facebook, my friends who were students in UNSW, said not to mess with him as he had been sexually assaulting female students on campus.” 

Account 14, 2018. 

I was walking past [redacted] College after a night out with some friends and got cat called by some [college] guys.” 

Account 15, 2018: 

“In the first few weeks of the first semester in 2018, I was approached by a fourth year male (I was a first year) student while walking down the main walkway. I was walking alone and it was approximately 10am.” 

“He eventually stopped me – physically getting in my way and side stepping when I tried to step away. He went straight to telling me how cute he thought I was, and made terrible small talk… After an attempt to banter with me about some cheap stereotypes about my degree (within STEM), he said he wanted my number.” 

I was not interested and intimidated because 1) this had never happened to me, 2) he was overly talkative for a stranger and that was off-putting, and 3) he had physically gotten in my way to get my attention earlier. Once again, I was a first year, fresh from high school, and obviously did not know where I was going (made the mistake of telling him this) and he was a 4th year (or at least that’s what he told me) taller than me, speaking over me, and blocking my pathway down the main walkway.” 

“I offered to message on Facebook messenger because I felt uncomfortable giving out my number, but he said that he doesn’t use Facebook and prefers texting. I tried to go on a tangent about “do you know where this other building is ahahah, I’m supposed to be meeting a friend like 15 minutes ago, I’m in such a rush aaaaaah like I actually need to run oooops” but it made him more adamant that I should give him my number and we could continue our conversation later.” 

“About to panic, I gave him my real number and left. He later texted me and I blocked immediately. I know it’s not assault, but I certainly felt harassed and retrospectively when I said that I’m a first year, wouldn’t a 4th year (typical age 21-22 y/o) realise that I’m 17-18 years old? I think he deliberately ignored signs that I wanted to get out of this conversation.” 

Reading about these experiences can be distressing, and emotionally exhausting. If you need help, or someone to talk to, you can call the following numbers: 

  • 1800RESPECT National Helpline: 1800 737 732 
  • NSW Rape Crisis Counselling Service: 1800 424 017 
  • Lifeline: 131 114 
  • LGBTQI+ Violence Service: 1800 497 212 
  • Get in touch with UNSW First Responders here 

If you have a story you would like to tell about sexual misconduct regarding UNSW students or staff, we welcome you to fill in our testimonial form here. The form can be filled in anonymously. 

If you would like to report sexual misconduct to UNSW, fill in the university’s sexual misconduct form on their Sexual Misconduct Portal here.