US sexual violence research trailblazer brings 30 years of experience to CQUni tour

Published:10 April 2018

Professor Mary Koss will address frontline DFV workers and researchers on her tour with the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research.

She was shining the spotlight on widespread sexual assault three decades before #MeToo, her research put the concept of 'date rape' into the public conversation, and her life’s work seeking justice for victims has pitted her against men’s rights activists and even her own colleagues.

Mary Koss, Regents’ Professor at University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, is a sexual violence research trailblazer, and she’s touring Australia for the first time in many years, to talk to academics and frontline responders about how victims can be supported to seek justice.

The tour, presented by the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research and CQUniversity, includes four dates in Brisbane and Mackay across 9 – 13 April, and will be live-streamed to audiences around the country.

In 1987, Prof Koss published the United States’ first national study of sexual assault among college students, which found that one in four women had been raped since the age of 14.

Prof Koss also piloted the Restore program, working with victim and perpetrator to develop a restorative justice plan that ensures the perpetrator takes responsibility, changes behaviour, and makes amends.

She was inspired to pursue restorative justice for sexual violence, as she came to understand that as little as 12.5 per cent of sexual assault reports in the US result in a conviction.

“I asked myself, ‘Are we just going to turn these people away and say we have no justice for you?’”

She said the #MeToo movement, and new public awareness of widespread sexual incidents in workplaces, showed the possibility of non-judicial outcomes for sexual offences.

“These men have been losing their jobs, because they do jobs where public perception is very important – but in reality, if you’re in a low-profile situation, it will take a long time for anything to happen, and it won’t be anything as clear-cut and satisfying as what we’re seeing in the media,” she said.

“Restorative justice is coming out with something that’s perceived as a fair process by both parties, but it isn’t widely implemented for sexual assault - yet harm has been done and it needs to be repaired, and victims need to drive the process.”

While in Australia, Prof Koss will speak on implementing restorative justice on campuses and in the community, and including victims’ voices in responses to sexual violence.

QCDFVR Professor Annabel Taylor said her visit was timely for the changing conversation about sexual violence and justice for victims.

“Especially as the #MeToo movement develops, the community is beginning to realise just how endemic and embedded sexual harassment and sexual assault is, especially in some of society’s biggest power structures,” Prof Taylor said.

“Understanding the experience of university students shows how early young people, and especially young women, are facing these issues, and how the unchecked behaviour of perpetrators in early life normalises their offending as they move into workplaces and adult relationships.”

Last year, an Australian Human Rights Commission survey of Australian university students found one in five had been sexually harassed on campus, and 1.6 per cent had been sexually assaulted.

The survey did not ask about experience of sexual assault or harassment outside of university, however.

Since 2016, Prof Koss has advised the US Departments of Justice, Education, and the White House Taskforce on Campus Sexual Assault.

She is a recipient of the Visionary Award from End Violence Against Women International, and has been honoured by the American Psychological Association for her work.