University colleges: nurturing a rape culture

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Warning: this post has graphic quotes from and links to mainstream media accounts of rape culture and imagery, and sexual violence.

One of the profoundly disturbing aspects of rape culture discussions—and this won’t surprise readers here—is the way that they reveal the confident assumption that there are rapists, who are evil and other and unresponsive to any form of social control, and then there are the rest of us, who can be exposed to any number of conflicting messages about rape—sexy rape, not-rape rape, that-type-of-girl rape, he’s-such-a-good-fellow rape—and emerge with our anti-rape moral compass intact.

There is no single place in my own experiences that taught me that this is wrong more thoroughly and dramatically than university residential college.

A little bit of background: the residential colleges are dormitories and communities at some of the Australian universities, usually the older ones. The best known examples are the colleges at the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne, but there are also colleges at the Australian National University (founded 1946) and the University of New South Wales (founded 1949), to give newer examples. The colleges are affiliated with the universities in the sense of being located on or very near the campus and (usually) having regulations about only housing full-time students of that university, but are typically administered and funded separately. Many were founded and continue to be run by Christian denominations. Some of the older ones are modeled on Oxford and Cambridge colleges although, unlike at those universities, having a place at college is not required to attend the university; in fact, college residents make up a small enough proportion of the undergraduate body that you can go through university without knowing much about them.

I was a resident of Sancta Sophia College, a Catholic women’s college at the University of Sydney, for most of the 1999 academic year, my first year of university. Many of my university friends were residents of Wesley College, a Uniting co-education college, at the time the only college at the university having men and women residents who were undergraduates. (Both Sancta Sophia and Women’s College had occasional male postgraduate residents, and St Andrew’s and St John’s have subsequently begun admitting women undergrad residents.) I lived in college because I wanted to go to the University of Sydney, and there weren’t very many other options for students from regional towns unless they were willing to enter the private rental market at seventeen years old. (I had an academic scholarship to attend the university and that and my parents together paid for my residence.)

The University of Sydney colleges were a study in insular community perpetration. Having “college spirit” was a source of conversation, and of pressure. Many, certainly Wesley at that time, allowed existing residents considerable say in which students got admitted in the future years. They’re very expensive to attend, and while there are some scholarships mostly the residents are the children of wealthy people. The demographic makeup was highly unrepresentative of the university community as a whole: it was extremely white. My husband, who is white, abled, cisgender, heterosexual and a native, monolingual English speaker, thinks that he was admitted to Wesley partly as a nod to diversity (in that he was and is atheist!). The colleges conduct their own parallel orientations in the same week as the university-wide ones, and often insisted on their residents visually distinguishing themselves from the non-collegiate first years in orientation week, by, for example, wearing academic gowns. The orientations were also of the team-spirit-through-adversity model with mutated traces of army hazing: being woken at odd hours in order to run around ovals, being dared to behave in socially odd ways towards non-residents, and drinking a very formidable amount of alcohol.

I knew a little of what I was in for: of all places, I picked it up from reading Helen Garner’s The First Stone in high school, which is about sexual harassment allegations against the master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne (and which is famously sympathetic to the master rather than the complainants), it mentions in passing as an example of college culture that during orientation week women were asked to lie down and roll across men’s bodies and hands on a beach.

With that kind of immersion in college life, many of the student body are prepared to let the colleges re-write their moral compass within a week or so. The rape culture traditions I remember best from my own college experience were:

  • one of the St John’s college chants, which went (as I recall, in its entirety) “yes means yes… and no means yes!” (second verse, same as the first, only louder)
  • the cries of “moll! moll!” from St John’s windows as Sancta residents walked along the “goat track” (a muddy path)
  • the theft of the women’s pictures, rumoured to be referred to at St John’s as “the menu”

I was never raped or attacked at college, but I was constantly terrified of it. Some of my friends at Wesley were harassed and threatened by other residents on various pretexts. What was especially frightening was the dropping of even lip service to the idea of consent so very quickly. That is where you can take a community, with a week of alcohol and your new best friends sharing their point of view 24 hours a day. There are students who don’t like it: they form social contacts outside the colleges quickly, and usually leave.

Given this context I was entirely unsurprised to see that today The Sydney Morning Herald carries a report that some residents of St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney formed an “anti-consent” Facebook group and a longer feature on college life including this segment on rape culture at St Paul’s:

‘They can’t say no with a c–k in their mouth” read the hand-drawn graffiti in the Salisbury Bar, part of St Paul’s residential college on the University of Sydney campus.

It has since been painted over, but the sentiment remains.

”Any hole is a goal” stated other graffiti. ”Free entry” yet more announced, accompanied by an arrow pointing to a sketch of a vagina.

The toxic atmosphere at the colleges actually gets a regular, if minor, press airing. The typical pattern of this discussion follows the “fair and balanced” media strategy. The most recent previous round was just a few months ago in September and followed the appointment of Lisa Sutherland as Wesley College’s first female master. Former resident Alexis Carey recounted “very real sexism and disrespect as a woman”, writing:

In 2007 alone, there was a reported rape of a female collegian, rocks were thrown from a balcony at female passers-by, and a group of men went on a rampage of vandalism and destruction inside the college. A gender equity meeting held to address the very real concerns of a large group of women about the general attitude towards them at college was met with derision and scorn.

Two days later The Sydney Morning Herald did its duty to a balanced story and posted rebuttals College is not the stuff of nightmares by Mez Nuthall, a former resident of an unnamed University of Sydney college, and A view of college life steeped in prejudice by Jeremy Marel, a current resident of Wesley College as of September. Marel wrote:

Violence and sexism are non-existent. Incidents such as the vague “vandalism and destruction” mentioned by Carey are, even if accurate, isolated and rare. Since I have lived at Wesley, there have been no instances of physical violence between collegians. Such behaviour is considered unacceptable by the master, by the administration, and by the students themselves.

Marel must be awfully surprised today then to read The Sydney Morning Herald‘s quotes from David Russell, Wesley College’s current master:

”… There was a boys’ club mentality – I have seen it twice in the eight years I have been here, and the thing that I learnt is that you can never take your hands off the steering wheel otherwise the car just hurtles out of control.”…

”I have had a couple of incidents where the girls have reported an unwanted assault … and usually the girl decides not to proceed [with the report] because they perceive they would have to leave the college.”

If the assailant is a Wesley boy, he is not invited back to the college next semester, Russell says.

”In 2007 there were a number of boys who were not invited back … They sit in front of me and lie to my face about certain behaviours, and I hear from police reports and other sources completely different stories and I say, ‘Sorry you are not coming back.’ ”

This itself already suggests that at Wesley, the college whose administration the article says was most prepared to speak against its own culture, rape survivors were being asked to spend the whole remainder of semester with their rapist living in the building, in a community that openly regarded them as fair game. It’s all disgusting, outrageous, and very deeply unsurprising. I wouldn’t be surprised tomorrow to see the counterpoint articles even now: I never saw it, I never heard of it, it was the best time of my life. And around it will go again.