On a pedestal

Pranay Jha investigates the toxic culture of private boys’ school sport

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Warning: this article deals with accounts of rape/sexual assault and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.

“It makes me feel ashamed of who I am as a person even though none of it’s true and I feel helpless because I’m honestly too afraid to speak out against them. They can get away with whatever they want with numerous girls and they’re all seen as heroes.”

I had met Lucy* before. We had been to the same parties and had many mutual friends, but this was the first time I saw the pain behind the otherwise enthusiastic and energetic young woman I knew. In fact, as a former student at The King’s School, the double standards she speaks of applied to my friends and me. Devastatingly, this is not her only experience with sexual assault; Lucy recounts four other incidents where private school boys have violated her consent.

One of her worst experiences occurred during Schoolies, where she recalls: “I was definitely taken advantage of in my drunken state and several boys witnessed it and didn’t say anything until the morning, when they told all the girls that they were pretty sure I had been raped.”

Boys from certain private schools have a reputation – informed by wealth, privilege and social power – as Sydney’s elite. During my six years of high school, I began to notice trends. They congregate at similar bars and parties, where they exercise control over who can attend, and, by extension, who reaps the “benefits” and social cache of these exclusive environments. It is in these environments, where these boys are lauded and placed on a pedestal, that Emily*, a former student at Loreto Normanhurst, suggests their true colours show.

“They are so much greater than the rest of the male species that they are able to do anything,” Emily says. Her perception is shared by other interviewees who conceded their tendency to be arrogant and entitled “really comes across on nights out”.

As I spoke to more young women, these attitudes appeared to manifest as something far more egregious. Hannah*, a former student at MLC, shared painful memories of being assaulted by a student after she passed out at a Head of the River after party. Other students then made jokes about the incident in an assembly for the entire school to hear.

Hannah is not the only MLC student to have experienced this. “One of the worst incidents I can think of was when my friend was throwing up drunk at a party and when I found her this guy was feeling her up,” she tells me.

Beyond the perpetrators themselves, the issue extended to the impunity their social status afforded them. “It is really hard to see someone who harasses you or assaults you as a criminal if you and everyone else see him as a good guy,” Hannah explains.

These experiences made me question my high school years. I drew on not-too-distant recollections of significant dates in the school calendar, like Head of the River. On the Friday morning before the race, the school hall is filled with chatter about how each crew is shaping up, about which afters will be the “rowdiest”. The seniors bellow a war cry. The rest of the school joins in. A thousand students lean back and scream at the top of their voice, as the eight “heroes” walk in. Their eyes are forward, heads held high, chest out: they are the pinnacles, the “ideal” GPS boys. At that point, the juniors understand what it means to be a student at this school.

As I spoke to more GPS and CAS boys, it became clear it is not necessarily the sporting achievements that are sought after by students, but the admiration and glory that comes with them. Inextricably linked to this are rigid and destructive constructions of masculinity.

“I think the problem at King’s was the snowball effect, there was a group of people who really believed that stuff and the others either followed along or pretended to,” my friend Rob tells me. Concomitant with this is the ability to get girls, be invited to parties and to hold a reserved seat at the Royal Oak Double Bay.

As students pursue masculinity, women are seen as accolades on the path to rising in the social hierarchy. My conversations with James,* a former student at King’s and a member of the First XV Rugby team were testament to this. “A girl has the capacity to say yes whilst drunk. Although she’s intoxicated, she can still make rational decisions,” he thinks.

The root of James’ claims is clear to me: it lies in the entitlement and privilege that comes hand-in-hand with attending a prestigious private school and being idolised by everyone there. These boys feel they have the right to set their own standards of morality.

None of the schools Honi spoke to denied the problem. In fact, they were adamant about fixing it. “A very concerted attempt has been made over the course of the summer and throughout the preparation for the [rugby] season to bring what could be regarded as an atypical culture into line with the norm,” says Dr Paul Hines, the headmaster at St. Ignatius College, Riverview.

Dr David Mulford, the headmaster at Newington College, painted the broader context in which these issues arise. “The media makes it extremely difficult for young men and women to find a moral compass or code for respectful relationships when they socialise together. They see music videos that demean women and portray men who are dysmorphic in their body shape, dismissive or angry and violent.”

Amid a similar acknowledgement of the prevalence of these issues, Dr Hawkes, headmaster at The King’s School notes, “Sure, education will help, but so too will self control and respect for others.” Herein lies the true problem.

Although all three headmasters pointed to a range of laudable, considered initiatives to educate against these behaviours, these programs could not account for one fundamental problem: in the choice between being “cool” and being respectful, young men rather tragically appeared to opt for the former.

In support of this, Hannah speaks of “lots of Facebook incidents of Newington guys ripping into feminism.”

“It was sort of funny because they just did this affirmation thing last White Ribbon Day.” Will*, a Newington alumnus went so far as to say: “A lot of the students I know, particularly the older years, see it as tokenistic.”

The initiatives of schools are positive and well-intentioned, but a deeply entrenched culture that glorifies rowers and rugby players hampers the responsiveness of students to these programs. It would always be the boys who hooked up with as many girls as possible that would be celebrated, and not those who stood for the rights of young women.

I can predict, with some certainty, the reactions of many GPS and CAS boys who will read this. I know that they will deny the existence of such a culture, that they will reduce it to individual cases, or outwardly reject the existence of such cases at all.

Despite this, one thing simply cannot be avoided. Not a single young woman interviewed was willing to attach her name to her comments, the single consistent reason being fear of retaliation. If that is not a culture that supports rape, I do not know what is.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call the NSW Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 RESPECT (1800 424 017). It doesn’t matter if you do not live in NSW, or even in Australia, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

*Names in this article have been changed.