Old networks defending college abuse culture
This story begins in 2009, when a student of mine discovered a “pro-rape” Facebook group created by men associated with St Paul’s College, at the University of Sydney. The group was titled “Define statutory: Pro-rape, anti-consent”.
One of the instigators of the group had already been the subject of sexual assault allegations in the year prior.
Yet when the “pro-rape” Facebook story broke in The Sydney Morning Herald, St Paul’s College was quick to distance itself and downplay the scandal.
In a statement, the college wrote: “It is not a college site, was not a college site and has no standing at all as a college document.”
Then New South Wales opposition spokeswoman for women Pru Goward went one step further stating that the Facebook group “was actually about sport” and had been set up by students associated with St Paul’s College “to draw an analogy between rape and competing with another football team”.
Recently, I checked the names of the men responsible for the group. Every one I could find is currently employed in either top-tier investment banking, at top law firms or in high-end property development. None of them have ever been publicly named.
This story could equally begin in 2001, while I was still in high school. That is when I first learnt of the toxic reputation of St Paul’s College. A schoolfriend had been asked to a formal event at the college. As she headed off for the night, she felt extremely special. After all, it’s not every day a high-school student is asked to a university event.
After entrees were served, it was revealed that each of the St Paul’s men had been allocated a “brief” on what sort of date he was required to bring.
One man had been instructed to invite “hot twin sisters”. Another had been issued the challenge of soliciting “a foreign backpacker”. A third was challenged to bring a “blonde with big breasts”.
One by one, the women were asked to stand up, at which point her date’s “brief” would be read. Other men present would then cheer to indicate the extent to which the male student had succeeded in meeting his “brief”.
Finally it was my friend’s turn. The brief was read: “A hot brunette in a G-string.”
The men stared at my friend. “We can see the brunette,” someone called out. “Now show us the G-string.”
Humiliated, my friend was required to turn around as the men inspected her to determine what type of underwear she was wearing. Fifteen years later, she can still recall the humiliation.
“I remember how mortifying it was standing up in front of everyone and how angry I was at my date for not telling me that this was going to happen. I was only 17.”
She left the dinner early, but not before her date vomited on her shoes.
Having spent almost 10 years studying and then teaching at the University of Sydney, I soon learnt that this story was at the lighter end of the spectrum. In my time as a staff member at the university, I received several rape disclosures from college women, along with graphic accounts of hazing and intimidation. I have been told of students finding other students had urinated in their beds or defecated in their shoes. Others had been forced to taste each other’s vomit or been auctioned off to older students who then abandoned them hundreds of kilometres from where they lived, drunk, semi-naked, and with no money or phone to assist in getting home.
Earlier this month, along with the community group End Rape On Campus Australia, I released The Red Zone Report, a 200-page examination of the culture of colleges at Sydney University.
The report details myriad abuses. Among them is a recent practice of male students ejaculating into the shampoo, conditioner or body-wash bottles of female students, so that the women unknowingly wash themselves with semen. It details an annual event at St John’s College called “The Purge”, where students are encouraged to post embarrassing photos and graphic sexual details about other students online. Elsewhere, the report details a practice known as “fresher grooming”, in which senior male students solicit and sexually rank junior female students.
These “rituals” take place in a vacuum of privilege. They have been handed down between generations. They are defended and anxiously shielded from contemporary standards. These “rituals” are not adolescent excess: they involve active maintenance by adults in power.
Orientation Week is the most dangerous in the university calendar. Every year there is a spike in both hazing and sexual assaults. Some college students have their mobile phones confiscated to stop photos leaking to the media. This is part of the preservation of a culture.
In a recent Wesley College Orientation Week manual, produced by student leaders, a section is entitled “Media Etiquette and Protocol”. This section instructs incoming students that “if approached by any media organisation you are instructed to simply state ‘No comment’ and walk away. Do NOT under any circumstance engage with media personnel. This is to ensure that the reputation of the college is not sullied as well as your own … Any failure to adhere to these requirements will be meet [sic] with action from the Master.”
In other words, instead of changing the culture, colleges have been trying to conceal it.
The same manual included sexist college chants and slurs about other students. It states that Sancta Sophia students are “scrubbers so ugly they make onions cry”, that Women’s College students “just play with their titties all day”, and non-college students are “retarded” individuals who “have no fun, are ugly and generally inferior”. The manual explains that college parties involve “riotous piss-up, random behaviour, excessive nudity, and multiple orgies”, that cask wine or “goon” is “an essential ingredient in the staple fresher diet”, and that “hook ups” are “an essential part of developing a tight-knit community”.
Very few college students have ever faced any real public consequences for their behaviour. In part, this is due to Australia’s restrictive defamation laws, which are tilted heavily in the favour of plaintiffs.
It is also to do with the fact colleges – and the powerful alumni groups that back them – go to great lengths to protect those responsible. In 2016, for example, it was exposed that Wesley College students had published a hook-up list that “slut shamed” female students. When pushed to deal with this, the college refused to comply with the vice-chancellor’s request to hand over the names of those responsible.
Several journalists who have attempted to expose college misbehaviour have faced legal threats and intimidation tactics from senior figures in the media industry and those in the legal fraternity, often alumni themselves. This isn’t surprising. Many in business have progressed through the pipeline from private school, to college, to boardroom. Privilege protects privilege. This is a social plane unused to being questioned.
Over and over, the old boys’ network will zealously shield their progeny from adverse consequences – not simply out of a filial loyalty, but to protect the institutions from which they drew their own power.
While researching The Red Zone Report we heard from several former college students who had either self-harmed or become suicidal in response to the hazing they experienced at college. But we also discovered that the most vociferous defenders of hazing and initiation rituals were alumni groups themselves.
It would appear that this is because those who have undergone hazing do not want their experiences to be suddenly divested of meaning. To eliminate these practices or reframe them as pointless, puerile or unlawful would not only call into question the judgement and character of those who participated in or reproduced these rituals in earnest but would empty prior suffering of its significance and meaning.
For many who have undertaken these rituals – being forced to stand for hours on end with their nose against a wall, or to drink large quantities of alcohol mixed with cow faeces, vomit and urine – the acts themselves may not be particularly desirable but the “value” is perceived to lie within the bonding forged through shared adversity.
The knowledge that one’s peers, and indeed one’s parents, have undergone the same rituals produces a sense of connection. These rituals serve to delineate between college insiders and outsiders: those who have undergone and survived these rituals, and those who have not.
This insider–outsider mentality is reflected in the language used by college students, who distinguish themselves from the “muggles” or “day rats” who do not live on campus.
Just as it is difficult to interrupt the powerful connections between private schools, colleges and the legal and banking fraternities, so, too, it will be difficult to disrupt the intergenerational cultural transfusion of these practices.
It’s important to note that a number of these practices also exist in boarding schools and that the power abuse they speak to continues well after university. Cultural intervention will need to occur at several levels of the community.
But the fact is the toxicity of these institutions is harming young people who are then harming others. Reform is seriously overdue. I think about the student of mine who complained about the St Paul’s pro-rape Facebook group, and the backlash she faced personally. And I think about the men who started the group, and the jobs they are in now.
Lifeline 13 11 14; Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence National Help Line 1800 737 732
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Defending the good old haze". Subscribe here.