Research showing one third of university students who are sexually assaulted don't report it is a conservative figure, a sexual abuse survivors' group says.
A study by Te Whare Tāwharau, the University of Otago’s Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Centre, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, the first since 1991, found 28 percent of the 1500 students surveyed reported sexual assault, including 15 percent who reported rape.
In nearly a third of those cases, survivors didn't tell anyone about their experience.
Olivia Montgomery was sexually assaulted at Otago University and said there are many reasons people don't report it.
"A lot of people who were assaulted knew the person who assaulted them and lived with them and had to continue living with them for the remainder of the year and a lot of us didn't want to speak out, or brushed over it completely and trivialised the assault because of the culture of the university."
Montgomery said when she raised issues, she felt she wasn't listened to.
Montgomery set up her own network for survivors and helped teach people about consent because of the lack of resources and support available.
Angelo Libeau from Otepoti Collective Against Sexual Abuse believed the survey data was conservative and it was likely a much bigger problem at universities.
"A lot of people don't want to often participate in research around sexual violence, particularly if they've had really negative experiences in the past talking to people about their experience of sexual violence.
"It actually makes people less likely to want to talk about that again.
Libeau said it was not always a positive experience when victims did open up.
He said sometimes people do nothing, while other times the victims get punished for speaking out.
"Also full on victim blaming that people experience and harassment just for raising the fact that somebody else has done something harmful."
It was all a huge detraction from wanting to report it.
Libeau said more work's being done in the sector thanks to funding increases, but it would be a while before progress was seen.
Study co-author, Otago University Associate Professor in Sociology Melanie Beres, said one of the biggest challenges was finding enough participants. The student population was emailed. The response rate was quite low so the findings needed to be interpreted with some care.
"It's not an accurate prevalence per se but it's an indication of some of the things that are going on on campus."
She said victims often downplay what's happened.
Beres believed under-reporting was common for sexual assault in general, not just universities.
"Many people don't necessarily recognise that their experiences were, 'serious enough' to seek out help or they might not be sure how people will react.
"They may blame themselves or worry that other people will blame them for their experience. So seeking help is something that's quite difficult to do for many people."
Beres said universities were working hard to address sexual violence, and more frequent research would be able to track if that change was positive.
Study hopes to 'attract some positive change'
Beres told Morning Report the findings did not surprise her because they were similar to research from universities around the world.
"It's difficult to say in terms of the rest of the New Zealand population. We know through crime survey data that sexual violence is highest between the ages of 16 and 24 but we don't have the comparison with the age group that is not attending university."
She was not surprised that so few people sought help.
She believes one of the benefits of the research is raising awareness and it may also prompt health professionals such as GPs to ask patients about their sexual experiences - finding out if they were consensual, and were they comfortable about them, for example.
Alcohol was a factor in most of the sexual assaults reported, which is also consistent with other research. About half of the victims reported that the perpetrator was drunk at the time, and 60 percent said they were drunk at the time.
"We know that it has a large role to play in sexual violence."
Gay and lesbian respondents reported higher sexual assault numbers in the survey which was also consistent with international results.
"The study intention is to see what's going on, to get a scope on it, and to redo it more frequently so that hopefully we can attract some positive change over the next few years."
Getting help for sexual violence
Victim Support 0800 842 846
Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00
HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0
Mosaic - Tiaki Tangata Peer support for males who have experienced trauma and sexual abuse: 0800 94 22 94