Survey gives new insight into sexual violence in New Zealand education

NZUSA's survey is the first of its kind into the experience of sexual violence within education communities.
NZUSA's survey is the first of its kind into the experience of sexual violence within education communities. Photo credit: Getty

Warning: This article contains a graphic account of a sexual assault that may be distressing to some people.

Claire was nineteen and in her second year at university in Wellington when she was sexually assaulted. She'd just gone through a painful breakup with her first girlfriend, and went out to a dance party in town with friends one evening.

What she experienced that night is all too common at New Zealand high schools and tertiary education, as an opt-in online survey released from the New Zealand Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) makes clear.

Of 1400 respondents to an online survey, 53 percent had experienced sexual assault and 83 percent had experienced sexual harassment during high school or tertiary education years.

The night that Claire - who wants to remain anonymous - was assaulted, she found herself dancing with a stranger. She was drunk and then she took some ecstasy - the music quickly became "the best music I had ever heard". As the two danced, they spoke to each other in mixed German and English, and soon they started making out. Claire says she jumped in surprise when he forced his hands down her underwear.

Later on she decided to go home with him, "because I'd never been with a guy and was sick of being the only person I knew that hadn't". So they hopped in a taxi together and went to his house.

In his bedroom they carried on making out, then he asked her if she was on the pill and she said no. She asked if he had a condom, but after struggling to put it on he threw it against a wall.

Then he got into the missionary position over her. "I laughed and said I didn't want to have sex if he wasn't wearing a condom," Claire said. But he ignored her, held her arms back and forced himself on her.

"I was too wasted and too small to really do anything about it... I lay there for a bit and tried telling him, first in English and then in German, could he please stop, and then, can you at least be a bit gentler, softer? I couldn't remember the word for gentle in German and I remember being very occupied by this," Claire said.

It didn't stop there. He assaulted her a second time, causing her to bleed.

Afterwards she didn't sleep at all. She kept quiet until it began to get light, then she slipped out from under his arm and left the house. He lived in an unfamiliar area, and she spent two hours walking home.

"When I got home I slept the rest of the day. I got up at one point for a cigarette, and had a big cry. I didn't cry again for maybe a couple years," Claire said.

It was years before she spoke about what happened that night. She denied it to herself and played it down to her friends as "a rowdy bit of sexual misadventure". She felt at the time that she had enough problems, as a queer person, a person with depression and an eating disorder. "I just didn't want to think about it".

An overwhelming majority of gender and sexuality minority respondents experienced sexual violence while at high school or tertiary education

Eighty-eight percent of respondents who identified as a minority sexuality had experienced sexual harassment, and 61 percent experienced sexual assault while a student.

Ninety-two percent of those who responded to the survey who identified with a minority gender had experienced sexual harassment while a high school or tertiary education student, and sixty-seven percent had experienced sexual assault. 

Women respondents reported far more experience of sexual violence than men

A majority (57 percent) of women experienced sexual assault and 89 percent experienced sexual harassment while a high school or tertiary education student. As for men, twenty-nine percent experienced sexual assault and 55 percent experienced sexual harassment.

Nine in 10 people named men as the perpetrators of sexual violence.

NZUSA have released a set of urgent recommendations following on from the survey

These recommendations include the introduction of consistent policies to prevent and respond to sexual violence at tertiary institutions, an annual independent review into sexual violence at tertiary institutions, and more comprehensive sex education programmes at schools and tertiary institutions.

However, the NZUSA notes that the 1400 respondents only makes up 0.35 percent of 400,000 tertiary students, so "the figures do not represent the tertiary sector as a whole." The results also include those who are sexually assaulted in their home by someone they know.

Since that night Claire has had counselling to talk about how the assault impacted her relationships and her mental health. But it still impacts her in ways that she is yet to make sense of, and she still hasn't told her parents.

"I still don't think I fully understand how it has impacted me. It hurts to think about and I'm ashamed of the whole thing."

Read the full In Our Own Words report and findings of the sexual violence survey here.

Where to find help and support:

Gender minorities Aotearoa 

You, Me, Us 

Women's Refuge 


Rape Crisis 

Find a sexual assault support centre near you