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Mary is a Sydneysider, a mother, a feminist activist for women in tech, and an erstwhile computer scientist. She co-founded a women-in-tech non-profit, the Ada Initiative, where she presently works. Mary also writes for Geek Feminism, and, when there's no other suitable venue, for her own blog puzzling.org.

This author has written 94 posts for Hoyden About Town. Read more about Mary »

39 responses to “University colleges: nurturing a rape culture”

  1. Rayedish

    Nice to see the ABC calling it for what it is. The headline is ” ‘Ingrained misogyny’ behind rape webpage”. From here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/11/09/2737370.htm?section=justin

    “But the problem goes beyond the webpage, according to the sexual harassment officer for the SRC, Rebecca Santos. She says she has been shocked by behaviour at college parties around the campus. “They follow that sort of mastercard-like [mindset]: ticket – 70 bucks; alcohol – this much; a first-year virgin – priceless,” she said. Ms Santos is also a resident of a campus college. She describes a culture of ingrained misogyny and an acceptance of rape.”

    But as you say Mary, the stories that will run in the following days as the damage control wagon rolls out will mitigate headlines like today’s.

    I liked what Fuck Politeness had to say about the story @
    http://fuckpoliteness.wordpress.com/2009/11/09/oh-fuckpoliteness-why-are-feminists-ruining-our-fun/

  2. fuckpoliteness

    Just wanted to say thanks, Mary. That’s the sort of thoughtful/insightful piece I was wishing I could have produced when all I could muster was a loud and angry rant. Though, happily the two can exist alongside one another nicely.

  3. kayloulee

    I never saw it, I never heard of it, it was the best time of my life. And around it will go again.

    I’m a student at the Women’s College right now. What you said just there is exactly what I’m hearing and have been hearing for the past month or so.

    It is very hard to try and have a conversation about the rape culture within college, especially so because being at Women’s means, of course, we have no male residents, and therefore people I’ve been talking to today have been trying to argue that “it’s not us, it’s them” and “there’s only a few bad seeds” and other such things, letting them believe that the college community – all the colleges, not just Pauls and Wesley, including Womens – isn’t complicit in allowing this rape culture to continue unaddressed.

    It said in the Sydney Morning Herald today that a college resident adviser had to use a master key to enter a room and stop a man from another residence continuing to rape a student.

    This terrifies me. A lot of us here think of our rooms as the last stand against the world place – it’s the most privacy you can possibly get, seeing as generally you are the only person with a key to your room (RAs and housekeeping have master keys; the RA master key is passed around to whoever’s on RA duty) and so supposedly you have absolute control. Except that’s not true of course. The whole article made me want to run and hide – except of course running and hiding ends in my room, which is nowhere near as secure as it seems. I find it horrifying that guys (don’t know which, don’t know where from, don’t know ANYTHING at all) take being let into college/a girl’s room as consent.

    The ‘few bad seeds’ argument means that all the guys who aren’t obviously That Guy somehow get painted as The Good Ones, when the whole point is that a) weird acting guys are not necessarily the ones who are going to rape and b) The Good Ones are not necessarily the ones who aren’t going to rape! AGH. What drives me crazy is that I can’t use the Schrodinger’s rapist argument because, just like in online discussions, I’d get “not-my-Nigel” and “I always feel safe” thrown back at me. Even though College tells us not to walk down certain streets by ourselves after dark and to be careful off-campus, they never mention anything about being careful around the colleges.

    The Women’s Principal put email and phone messages around over the weekend and the main tone of them was that “college is being attacked by the media”, she didn’t say what for at all. If anything the most honourable thing to do in my opinion would have been to be up-front t about the endemic rape culture, but she wouldn’t because that would be admitting that the problem is not just guys, it’s also the hiding of the problem by everyone.

    One thing that’s always really horrified me is the advertisements that go up (or used to go up, I don’t see them so much anymore) every week advertising theme nights at the Salisbury (Paul’s College pub). They always say something along the lines of “cheap drinks for ladies before 9pm”, they always advertise drinks that are known to get you drunk really fast, and they ALWAYS have some sort of a theme that involves the endorsement of women acting/dressing ‘promiscuously’ (I’m saving my personal opinion on the value judgements attached to women acting ‘no better than they ought to be’ for later) in a majority-male environment.

    I’ve always been bothered by the attitudes within College towards women and towards drinking culture. In my college O-Week in 2007, the leaders were very surprised when I said that even though I was overage I didn’t want to go out to the pubs, which they were promoting every night. I am so tired of the culture within the colleges that promotes an unsafe environment and doesn’t openly entertain the possibility that consent is non-negotiable.

    Thank you for writing this, Mary! I’ve been quietly furious all day because of the culture that exists here and is preventing me from openly challenging it because so many people buy into it. Also USyd is in our first week of exams for the semester, I have my first exam tomorrow, and I am tempted to theorise that they (don’t know who ‘they’ are) picked this week to publicise college rape culture because so many students are really busy, too much so to talk to the media.

  4. Helen

    No time to comment, just, great post Mary.

  5. Deborah

    Fantastic post, Mary – a great complement to FP’s rant. The whole college culture seems quite sick – a site for production of kyriarchy.

    Thanks for the inside information, kayloulee. Best wishes for getting through your exams in the next few days.

  6. lilacsigil

    I attended a completely non-selective, relatively cheap college at Monash, which is a rather different model of university accommodation, though it maintains the social activities and student supervisors. While the alcohol culture was really, really strong, and there was certainly a lot of sexually oriented games/activities, I think the larger number of rural and international students, and students from other assorted backgrounds, defused the “fair game” and “hunting ground” aspects to some degree, if only because there were always a good number of students who weren’t interested. The culture you describe above was a sub-culture, not the dominant mindset. This is not to excuse it in any way, but to say that university colleges don’t HAVE to be that way, even if those same people and the same conditions are present.

  7. Jennifer

    Great post Mary. . I don’t think it’s coincidence that Wesley has been co-ed the longest, and takes this the most seriously. All the others think those women should be grateful they are even allowed to be there.

  8. kayloulee

    @Mary Right back at you with the horrible familiarity. I haven’t heard the chants you describe but we do have ones very like them. I don’t use them, they offend me, and besides I stay away from a lot of the college spirit stuff because I think it’s pointless. For example, “If the ocean was whiskey, and I was a duck, I’d swim to the bottom and never come up. But the ocean’s not whiskey, and I’m not a duck, so come back to Women’s and have a quick fuck” – there’s an adapted version of this on the “save water” signs in the bathrooms!

    A friend of mine who finished at college last year said that she thinks the culture here is very like that in the Greek system in the US, except slightly more hidden and implicit. We actually have a couple of US exchange students here at the moment who are members of a sorority at their home university, and they gave us a presentation on the Greek system at dinner about a month or so ago. I was amazed at how more open the Greek system seemed about things that college culture here hides.

  9. Craig Ranapia

    On a slight tangent, I wonder if alumni like Jane Campion, Julie McCrossin and Mary Kostakidis feel comfortable about their names being used as part of the University of Sydney’s on-line sales pitch, under the heading Why Choose Sydney? We Create Leaders .

  10. lechuga

    I am also at Women’s College and @kayloulee, i agree with everything you have said. I also feel that I cannot speak up about the issue at college, it is nice to see someone sharing the perspective.

  11. that girl

    @Jennifer: It should be noted that St Johns College, which only started accepting female students in 2001, is farewelling its first female house president this year. Both St Johns and St Andrews have a fairly balanced amount of female and male students- I think St Johns may have more women than men.
    And yes, while the majority of students at St Pauls (and probably Womens and Drews) are wealthy, private-schooled Sydneysiders, the student populations of Wesley, Sancta and Johns are generally comprised of country kids, many of whom attended regional highschools.

    Just a bit of extra information :)

  12. DeusExMacintosh

    I spent a very happy first year at a residential college at UQ and my only beef is with the creeping protestant evangelism I experienced. As it was women’s only (widely described as “the fridge on the ridge”) and my particular floor was quite conservative, I felt entirely secure living there. It was a great relief compared to the abusive situation I was facing at home. However some of the inter-college conversation about residents at the catholic women’s college on campus was utterly horrific and of exactly the type to which you refer.

  13. newswithnipples

    Great post Mary. Did you see in today’s SMH that the colleges aren’t even connected to the uni’s sexual harassment policy? Unbelievable. I’d like to think things will start to change, but it’s almost 2010 and it feels like we’re just beating our heads against a brick wall. I can’t believe we still have to protest about this stuff.

  14. Stephanie

    Thank you for explaining the college system Mary. I’m from the US and was an advocate for survivors of sexual assault during undergrad at a small catholic college, and an ally while in grad school at a much larger university that had a huge fraternity/sorority system.

    Kayloulee, I thought the same thing as your friend. The separation between the colleges and university seems very similar to the problems I came across at the university because the fraternities are associated with the school but must only adhere to certain rules and codes.

  15. kayloulee

    @that girl You’re right, most of the Women’s population comes from Sydney and most of them went to private schools. I used to think that it was 1/3 city, 1/3 country, 1/3 international, but now I know that I was being idealistic because I actually saw an official breakdown of population (someone from House Committee left it in the communal printer) and it’s more like 70% rich city people. In first year when we were all talking about where we were from I got so many stares and condescending looks when I revealed that I’m from the bush and I went to a public high school in what they thought was “a tiny little town”.

    @lechuga Hi! Did you see the letter in the SMH today by Karina Scott? I desperately want to write a letter in reply but the problem is she’d find me and throw “bad seed” arguments at me. I wish I could speak up in college but it would look like I’m “disloyal” and people would take it personally or something, because I think that the entire college system and culture are complicit.

  16. Liam

    Great, great post, Mary.

    A bit of essential reading on this is for anyone unfamiliar with the Sydney and Melbourne colleges is Peter Cameron’s Finishing School For Blokes which was about the similar culture at Sydney Uni’s St Andrews College in the early 1990s. The important point that he made was that the culture of the Colleges wasn’t a University thing in isolation; they were fixed parts of the business and law elites in the cities, and of the small group of Sydney GPS and elite Catholic private boys’ schools—and that it was impossible to change anything at the Colleges, short of abolishing them altogether, without addressing the Sydney and Melbourne upper bourgeoisie’s culture of educating boys.

    Old men came back to the College to relive their days, to serve on the committees, to resist any change, and to make sure the experience for their sons was similar to the one they misremembered. It’s not that the College rape culture was an abberration of youth, it’s that it was a central and necessary part of the Sydney elite’s self-identity, and that you could see it made older and more powerful in any major Australian corporation or law firm.

    (Personally, for this reason, I favour abolishing the residential colleges altogether, compulsorily liquidating the assets, ploughing the fields, mulching the timbers, recycling the stone from the buildings, burning the rest down to the foundations, salting the earth left over and listening to the cicadas chirping from the ashes, but certainly there needs to be something as Mary and kayloulee say for rural students.)

  17. K

    Kayloulee, I don’t want to offer patronising advice, and you might have already thought of this, but perhaps it would be useful to talk to the Women’s Officer at the Student Union/SRC/whatever it’s called there? I’m suggesting it because the ANU Students’ Association seems to have done a bit better on consent and rape. They did a big publicity thing around consent during O-week recently (I think it was last year). Organisers wearing T-shirts saying things along the lines of ‘If she’s too drunk to say no, it doesn’t mean yes’, stacks of posters and stuff in the O-week showbags. And the ANU SA has engaged with colleges on students’ behalf on other matters.

    But, if there’s a women’s collective on campus (or a women-only space), it’s likely to be through the SA.

  18. SunlessNick

    Great post!

  19. Zoe

    It’s like because they’re clever, they couldn’t be part of rape culture.

    I went to a college at ANU in the early 1990s, and it was much as described.

  20. kayloulee

    @K: There is a Usyd Women’s Collective affiliated with the SRC, and the problem is that while they’re reasonably active they’re of the womyn-with-a-y persuasion, and I don’t have much time for that kind of radical feminism (whether they are actually radical feminists or not I don’t know, but womyn-with-a-y sounds it), because it excludes all women who don’t, according to them, adhere to their definition of being a woman.

    Apparently they’ve organised to picket St Pauls today – they organised over FB, which I don’t have – and I did hear something this morning about Pauls being picketed. To be honest I don’t see their methods as doing much good, because they don’t address the underlying problem and they also give the impression to Pauls and college culture generally that “the angry feminists” are the only ones who object enough to turn up and argue against rape culture. I hate that I have to try to counteract the tone argument like this, because I shouldn’t have to, but unfortunately it’s hard to tell someone they’re making the tone argument when they haven’t even heard of it, and they continue to make the tone argument ad infinitum.

    I do think the SRC would be helpful because they provide advocacy services and counselling and so on, but for specifically women-oriented issues such as this I’d get referred to the Women’s Officer and then to the Women’s Collective, unfortunately.

    (Just had my Gender in Modern Asia exam, so if I sound really wanky that’s why, I just had to wear my Academic Feminist Hat for two hours.)

  21. WildlyParenthetical

    I was a college girl for a year and a half around 2000 at Robert Menzies College (shhh, you don’t have to laugh *that* hard!) at Macquarie Uni. It was appalling, the kind of misogyny I saw there sometimes, and when it was most transparent, it was usually a bunch of loud, aggressive men displaying it: not a scene for a challenge from me. I just skimmed Carina’s article, and she points out that you are excluded if you resist it. It’s true, to a large extent. I was on the outer of the college community, because I refused to play along with either the evangelical christians or the misogynists (sadly, both men and women, as the articles have pointed out). I was lucky that I already had an established friendship group on campus; I have met some great people at college, but they too tended to be on the outer. But it was just as well, because I had a space where I could withdraw from the unsafe, and often unfun, social spaces which were so heavily characterised by sexism, racism and homophobia.

    I have to say, whilst it does sound very bad at Sydney, we shouldn’t assume that those who come from regional areas don’t participate in this kind of guff: that was the majority constituency at RMC, and we had awful chants sung on buses on the way in to a college formal, as well as at each other, and some not particularly pleasant engagements between the sexes. What’s more, RMC was a ‘dry’ college, and if anyone thinks that drying out events is the key to breaking down misogyny, they really need to think again.

    Kayloulee, I just have to point out that the Women’s Collective at Usyd picketing isn’t intended, in and of itself, to fix the misogyny, but is a way of vocalising that this behaviour is unacceptable. On its own, picketing is never enough, but it’s never intended to be so. In the context of broader community condemnation, as we see here, or even to prompt such condemnation, picketing plays an important role. And it does so partly because it demonstrates to the colleges what you, and other people like you, are too afraid to do: it demonstrates that *students*, the supposed market of colleges, find this behaviour unacceptable. And in the end, whilst I get your point that ‘only the feminists’ get worked up enough about this, well, that’s because other people don’t picket. They could do! It would seem that, sadly, in fact, only the feminists *do* get worked up enough about this kind of misogyny to actually do something about it…

    I’m also not sure that the Women’s Collective *is* in fact a radfem haven; there’s a strong and smart Gender and Cultural Studies Department at USyd (which is home to Carina Garland, who wrote that piece linked to above!), as you doubtless know, and I suspect they play a part in producing the feminist community there. I’m just cautious about that claim because I was a Women’s Room Coordinator and a Women’s Department Coordinator when I was at uni, and the major perception was that we were *those* kinds of feminists… when the diversity of feminists involved was remarkable, and many of us, including myself and my co-co-ordinator, identified as distinctly *other* than radical feminists. Further, the SRC should be *backing* the Women’s Collective’s resistance to this, and encouraging broader participation in it, not just handing you over to them… :-/

  22. Claire

    Yeah former Women’s Officer too here :-) I used to fear going to the women’s collective at my uni for fear of being judged…then I just rocked up and got stuck into it.

    I think it’s an unfair generalisation – without much evidence – that they must be radical feminists and scary – not that there is anything wrong with being a rad fem and scary in and of herself! :) so they are being tagged as wanting every woman to be like this. Noone knows what the collective is about until the women are spoken to.

    The Women’s Officer there is apparently very good. I’ve known most of the women’s officers for the past 4 years and all have been wonderful.

    Whatever happens, best of luck x and HUGS!

  23. fuckpoliteness

    Pops in to wave and self identify as Wildly Parenthetical’s co-co-ordinator. Hmm…does this help dispel images of scary feminists…slinks away quietly

  24. kayloulee

    @Wildly Parenthetical: I have to say, when you’re right, you’re right.

    I just have to point out that the Women’s Collective at Usyd picketing isn’t intended, in and of itself, to fix the misogyny, but is a way of vocalising that this behaviour is unacceptable. On its own, picketing is never enough, but it’s never intended to be so. In the context of broader community condemnation, as we see here, or even to prompt such condemnation, picketing plays an important role. And it does so partly because it demonstrates to the colleges what you, and other people like you, are too afraid to do: it demonstrates that *students*, the supposed market of colleges, find this behaviour unacceptable.

    I think my problem at the moment is that I’m stuck not being able to see beyond the immediate college context – my response was based on the idea that since I heard people here being incredulous at the idea of St Paul’s being picketed, I thought that that was how picketing would be seen by people outside of college as well. And it will be seen that way by some people, but not everyone, and yeah, like you said, at least it’s raising awareness that there are serious problems.

    I do think that the perception of the Usyd Women’s Collective being a radfeminist haven is helped along in part by the radfeminists who are in it, because they are very vocal and very visible. That’s not to say of course that it’s entirely made up of radical feminists. On the Gender and Cultural Studies centre here – I’ve taken classes that are crosslisted to GCST, because I like a lot of practice with a little bit of theory for context, and the Centre is great but it does, unsurprisingly, do a lot of theory-based work.

  25. Claire

    Hi,

    not to labour the point…

    a) what do you think is a radical feminist?
    b) have you spoken to anyone in the women’s collective and asked the person about their politics?

  26. retrogrouch

    Nothing has changed. I spent (survived) a year at St John’s College almost 40 years ago – the same chants, the same abuse from the windows to the Sancta girls on the goat track. I remember the head boy goose-stepping up and down the top corridor with a union jack, and another senior boy inviting friends back to the farm to bayonet some emus (I’m not making this up). A cat was thrown out of a top window to see what would happen. These behaviours were certainly not the norm, but neither were they frowned upon. It was very much an atmosphere of “boys will be boys”, the refrain being “unless they’re from St Paul’s”.

  27. K

    @kayloulee 23, yes, I wasn’t sure if the suggestion would be helpful – just thought I’d say it because I can remember starting uni and having no idea of what kinds of things there were on campus.

    College certainly isn’t the only part of the world where there’s both rather awful misogynist culture and also people who are friends and who you care about. Myself, I find some of these things difficult to negotiate day in, day out.

    Hope that your exams are going well, and that you have a lovely summer break. Just, wishing you everything lovely.

    By the way, Crikey’s linking to this page, so there’s possibly a little more traffic coming past (in case you’re using your full name and are concerned about anonymity).

  28. WildlyParenthetical

    Yeah, I’m kinda with Claire on this one. It’s probably worth noting that a number of our fine hoydens and hoydenizens identify as radical feminists, and I’m not overly happy with them being discussed in this context as a problem. It’s not simply the diversity of the women’s collectives that I’m wanting to point to, but that the term ‘radical feminist’ may not mean what you think it does, and that even if it did, I’m not sure that that is, in and of itself, a problem. (There are problems I have with radical feminism, but they mostly have to do with what I think is an oversimplification of oppression, and a commitment to a problematic (that is, white, Western and liberal) model of the subject. And these don’t even apply to all radical feminists). What I’m trying to ask, I guess, without derailing the thread too much, is what exactly about the women’s collective is so problematic. Like Claire, I was at first a little worried that I wasn’t the right kind of feminist; but I knew that part of that was likely to be the ways that feminists are misrepresented: that the ‘image problem’ they had was part of an attempt to delegitimise them. So I walked in one day, to find out for myself, and wound up in organisational roles.

    But yes, I’d like to echo K in wishing you all the best for your final assessments! And a gorgeous summer.

  29. steve from newtown

    I first attended university in the early 1970s.
    This stuff was happening then, but the code of silence was working more effectively.
    A gay fellow-student was at St Paul’s, getting a fairly hard time too.
    I also know people who lived at Earle Page college at UNE, who attest to the same stuff happening.
    I think Liam’s point above is fairly apt – it’s systemic in some way.
    I wonder how many of these guys boarded at high school too, then went straight in to college – still institutional but with a whole lot less scrutiny of their behaviour.
    Just thinking of the nasty ‘Anaconda’ business at Trinity Grammar a few years ago: is it about how we teach boys to become a different kind of man?

  30. kayloulee

    @Claire I don’t think, actually, after some thought, that my definition of a radical feminist is as important as the existence of the perception that the Women’s Collective is made up of radical feminists. And it seems to me that that perception is what is stopping a lot of female students who consider themselves feminists from becoming involved in the Women’s Collective. This goes both ways of course – if it was seen to be full of not-radical-feminists then perhaps students who consider themselves radical feminists would feel excluded too.

    I have noticed that the Women’s Collective writers in and to Honi Soit, who are seen as radical feminists (for example in the letters page), are probably not ‘radical feminists’ as such but feminists who are seen as radical.

    @K and @Wildly Parenthetical – thank you for telling me that Crikey’s linking. I’m not using my real name, as it happens. Thanks also for wishing me a good break – I’ve got three months of break and boy oh boy do I need it.

  31. Amanda

    I came down from the country to university in Sydney and don’t recall even considering colleges as an option for accommodation, I don’t think I or my parents even knew they existed until I lobbed into town a day before classes started. I did think it was odd that they were religiously run, at least nominally — still being segregated that way seemed to go against what I imagined a university was all about. UNSW even had/has one run by Opus Dei, IIRC.

  32. Linda Radfem

    Thank you for this.

  33. orlando

    Has anyone heard any follow-up about this? I couldn’t find a thing in the Herald on Saturday, save a lone letter from some plonker complaining that Paul’s shouldn’t be criticised while there are colleges that house only women. Have the men who participated in the Facebook page been suspended or expelled? I don’t want to see this just disappear. The police need to find something to charge them with – anything – so they have criminal records and can’t go on to practice law and eventually become those judges who make vile and ignorant comments and decisions while presiding over rape trials, of which Australia has such an egregious history.

  34. Mary

    As best I can tell, there has not been disciplinary action. Richard Ackland wrote a column on Friday specifically about the official response:

    Yesterday I asked [St Paul's warden Ivan] Head whether disciplinary action has been taken and if so what is the nature of that action?

    After careful deliberation the PR lady came back with a statement: ”St Paul’s College has launched a full investigation into this matter, and it would be inappropriate to comment while the investigation is under way. The college hopes to soon obtain a copy of the offending Facebook site, which is understood to have been a soccer team information site.”

    … If [the Herald's reporter Ruth] Pollard knows the names of the relevant creeps you would have to say that it would not be beyond the wit of Head to ferret out the offenders, call them into his book-lined study, lock up the sherry, put the thumbscrews on them and have them rusticated quick smart.

    The vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, Dr Michael Spence, was no more useful in his pronouncements. His email to all staff said he regarded the pro-rape webpage with the ”utmost seriousness” and that everyone involved was working hard to bring about a change in attitude and behaviour… I’d bet that there is a go-slow on this because it’s exam time and there is a reluctance to prejudice anyone’s glittering career.

  35. fuckpoliteness

    There’s an essentially empty article about this from Charles Waterstreet in today’s Herald. I’m not sure what (if anything) it really says…boys will be boys, hurrah for co-ed, wooh, women are sexually aggressive and it’s all working out in the wash?

  36. Helen

    Nick Possum’s come out of his tree hollow to comment. (I’d love to see what Joadja has to say!)

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