Combating college culture

SRC Residential Colleges Office Bearer, Justine Landis-Hanley, uncovers the toxic culture at the University of Sydney’s most prestigious, and polemic, living quarters

February 2014: it’s Kendra Murphy’s third morning at St Andrew’s College. She wakes to the crackle of a senior student’s voice echoing through the halls over the central PA system. The voice greets the students by reeling off their O-Week sexual encounters and embarrassing stories. Kendra listens in horror as they tell her new friends and neighbours the compromising tale of how her evening ended the night before. For the rest of the week, she is teased and mocked.

Kendra quickly learns that this sort of public shaming isn’t merely a one-off event, but a glorified tradition at the college. Every night, the senior students open up the college’s internal bar, the Highlander, to sell lollies, an event called ‘Buffet’. About once a week, a similar voice announces the start of Buffet by revealing college hook-ups and other personal information, a tradition known as ‘Buffet Chat’. A few weeks into semester, the students on Buffet Chat reveal that Peter* and Kendra were seen going back to his room during a college celebration, known as Victory Dinner (VD).

“They said it to everyone as if it was a funny thing, but what they didn’t know was that something bad happened that night,” Kendra said. Kendra alleges she was sexually assaulted. “Having that announced in front of the entire college, and having people come up to me and tease me for getting with Peter for weeks to come, was the absolute worst”.

Kendra’s story is not unique, and not confined to within the walls of St Andrew’s College.

On the first night of that very same O-Week, Sarah*, a Women’s College Fresher, was helped out of David’s* bedroom at St Paul’s College by her RA (Residential Assistant), after she was found drunk and vomiting into his bin. She can’t remember if they had sex. But as Sarah told Honi, “it wasn’t the incident itself, but the fallout and treatment of the situation that was unique to college”.

After apologising to David at an intercollege event the next day, Sarah thought that the situation was self-contained and put aside. She realised this was not the case at the Women’s and Pauls ‘Fresher Revue’: an annual show written by second-year students to make fun of the seniors, in which the Freshers are forced to perform. Sarah tells Honi she was made to play a Women’s resident made fun of in the show for having slept with lots of first years. This didn’t have the older girl’s consent. Nonetheless, Sarah said she was forced to rub baby oil on one of the other guys.

“I went along with it, but during the dress run, a bunch of Paul’s guys got drunk. One of my lines was “Mmmm, take your shirt off”. Suddenly, one of David’s friends at Paul’s yelled out, “is that what David said?” Paul’s boys continued to heckle Sarah in front of the entire cohort of Freshers. “The fact that I was heckled to my face on stage, while playing a girl who was also being slut shamed by the Women’s College community, was one of the most humiliating things… I felt so uncomfortable in that living space from then on”.

Being teased by her intercollegiate peers about an unwanted sexual experience became a familiar threat for Sarah. A few weeks later, she was walking home to her room when a bunch of boys on the tennis courts jeered “David, look who it is”. “I had to be scared when I walked around, or went back to my room, and into Paul’s from Chapel Choir. I would see those people who would make fun of me for this deeply personal thing that happened. No one in their right mind would think that is okay or tolerated in the real world. But college is different”.

College is different.

Last week saw University of Sydney colleges dominate mainstream media. USU’s PULP Media exposed a 2014 Wesley College student journal that labelled female college students as ‘hoes’ and ‘bitches’, shaming men and women who slept the most with each other, and handed out titles like “Best Rack” and “Best Pornstar”.

Speaking to former residents of various residential colleges since then, it was made clear to Honi that this shaming of sexual activity was widespread throughout the intercollegiate community.

In the past, Sarah said student leaders have started breakfast at Women’s O-Week with a slideshow of photos depicting the freshers in compromising and embarrassing situations from the night before. Kendra says that at St Andrew’s college Annual General Meetings, the House Committee picks out students to stand up and tell a joke or their first sexual experience. Alexander Tighe says similar stunts were regularly during his time at St John’s College.

Speaking to these former college students, it quickly became clear that, within these sandstone walls, standards of normal behaviour and codes of conduct are heavily warped.

One example is ‘Fresher Fishing’ at St Andrew’s – an annual party that college administration have threatened to shut down, according to Julia*. Kendra also talked about this party, where groups of second year students are paired with first year students. “The aim of the party is to catch the bait; for the older students to catch the young fish and get them in bed”, said Kendra.

Later in the year, St Andrew’s Freshers are also pressured to be auctioned off in groups for the annual ‘Walkabout’. Older students place monetary bids on the freshers lined up on their hands and knees like cattle in the college’s Highlander Bar. “It’s humiliating,” Kendra said. “The popular kids get upwards of $200, and they fight over them. The non-popular kids get $10. And all so they can dress you, get you drunk and drive you as far away as they want”.

But perhaps what is equally unique about college is the way that many college students have leapt to their institution’s defence to brush off or justify events like these when they have been exposed in the media.

In response to last week’s Wesley College Rackweb debacle, a person identified as “Robert Oliver”, who Honi believes to be a college student, defended Rackweb’s existence, arguing on Facebook that “it is a satire piece written for and by student [sic] take the piss out of a variety of things, even sexism as a concept”. Another identified as “Kate Burgess” denounced the article as “sensationalist drivel”, saying that she doesn’t “actually need to defend myself in the first place. Never had an instance of slut shaming nor discrimination”.

Several of these comments have since been deleted.

A former Wesley woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Honi that she and her friends found being named in Rackweb empowering.

“The thing that people need to understand is that it is all just jest. The journal is something produced by Wesley students for the enjoyment of the rest of the cohort. We all vote on the ‘awards’ section of the journal and all students have the power to ask not to be featured in the journal if they don’t want to be.”

As with Rackweb, active consent is the common defence against controversial college practices: students insist everyone is given the chance to opt-out and that their decisions are respected. It’s all harmless fun, after all. However, as former Women’s student Rachel* told Honi, this defence is fabricated to “cover the arse” of senior students.

“Of course it’s your option, of course you have agency, you don’t have to do anything, but you are in an environment where you don’t want to be the odd one out. You want to be like anyone else”.

The reality is that consent does not exist in a vacuum and as Sarah explains, college is “unlike any other community on campus”.

“Because you are in a living environment with these people it is assumed that all these things are okay and any dissent is used as social ammunition to be excluded, and no one wants to feel excluded from where they live… it takes time for people to find their voice and stand up to an institution that is incredibly protective and particularly savage on the internet”.

At times, this attitude towards silencing dissenting, and potentially revealing voices, is made explicit within the college: every former student I speak with mentions how their O-Week student leaders gave them the ‘media talk’, warning them against talking to the press, and encouraging them to give false names. In 2012, St John’s College administration had to arrange for alternative accommodation for some of their students who were threatened by their peers for speaking up after a girl nearly died during a college drinking ritual.

But even if the social pressure of college means genuine consent is impossible to attain, students continue to defend these practices, parties and publications on the basis that they aren’t all that bad, and the negative connotations attached to them are inaccurate.

The former Wesley college resident says that she “feels for the girls who had bad experiences at college,”, but believes these experiences are not commonplace.“We’re all educated girls, we understand sexism and I know personally that I don’t lie down and take it when people make overly sexist jokes or remarks. Therefore, why would women come forward and defend Wesley if the allegations of widespread sexism were true?”

A good question, and one that many of us in the broader community ask (often literally, in the online comments sections of these articles) – why is this behaviour, criticised by outside audiences, considered relatively benign enough to remain defensible by these residents?

The short answer: because within these colleges exists a culture where everything is permissible. However, this answer merely begs several qualifying questions, the main one being: what creates this culture, and what allows it to perpetuate unchecked?

It arguably boils down to three main factors: demographic, environment and collegiality.

Former St John’s student, Alexander Tighe, observed that there are three types of people who go to these colleges. There are those who hail from far away towns and interstate, who find themselves completely separated from the world they grew up in. Secondly, there are those moving on from boarding school to college, which although provides a similar level of care, yet with comparatively little regulation. The final type of student is native to Sydney, but wants to leave home to have the ‘‘college experience’ they have had glorified through friends’ stories and Hollywood. For all of these students, however, they are entering a new world where the line between possibility and permissibility is fatally blurred. “Not everyone in college is discriminatory or misogynistic, but those who are can act with near impunity,” Alex says.

“You are in this culture of instability. You are suddenly in an environment where there are no rules, where you are completely free, where there are these students running around like demigods.”

What becomes clear throughout all of my interviews is the fact that, for these students, living in these colleges was like being a fish in a fishbowl. From day one of Orientation Week, students are taught chants, given merchandise, have their personal stories revealed to their peers, and get their beds flipped over if they leave their bedrooms unlocked. Sarah says that this level of intimacy within the college fosters insularity.

“It alters their mentality, particularly the way that some colleges actively discourage engaging with the university… at the end of the day, your only friends are from college, the last thing you want to do is attack them and say something that goes against their reputation.” This isolation creates a bubble within college, in which all behaviour becomes relative to warped norms. It is largely with hindsight and distance that the students I speak with say they have been able to gain perspective on the inappropriateness of these practices and their experiences. It’s very difficult to opt out of a culture when you live there.

Arguably, this culture allows for these behaviours and practices to perpetuate under the guise of ‘tradition’ and ‘harmless fun’. It’s why at St Andrew’s College, older students rip the shirts of boys, and girls with large breasts, during Victory Dinners, Kendra says. It’s why, she says, following their O-Week sexual harassment talks in 2014, the girls were told by senior students to line up waiting for the boys, and try to grope them sexually because it would ‘be really funny, because they’ll be too afraid to look at you after being told that they can’t touch you without your consent… they won’t know what to do’.

It’s why, when Sarah cried to her Residential Assistant (RA) during O-Week because she was embarrassed about her drunken sexual encounter at St Paul’s, her RA reassured her by saying ‘Don’t worry, this is a rite of passage; during my O-Week, I was found passed out on the St Paul’s lawns without any pants on. This is just part of it”.

It’s why it is acknowledged, accepted and assumed that students may have experiences like this during the time at college.

Clearly not everyone who goes to college experiences discrimination, or is made to feel uncomfortable by their living environment. Not everyone is a victim. And it is not my aim to portray all college students as victims. You cannot homogenise personal experiences. Nor is it the case that the students who endorse and partake in these behaviours do so with malicious intent. However, the fact is that some people are deeply affected by what is arguably a toxic culture. This piece is not an attack on the individual – it is an attack on an environment that compels people to behave in certain ways, and subject others to this behaviour.

How we enact change within the aforementioned institutions is a dilemma fraught with difficulty. It would require overturning years of action and inaction that has been continually justified as ‘tradition’. Further, the only way that change can be brought about is if it is willed by the institutions and their constituencies. They need to investigate their own systemic sanctioning of dangerous behaviours and take the appropriate steps to combat them. Fighting such a deeply entrenched set of practices, perpetuated by a generally forgiving mentality, is undoubtedly difficult, but certainly possible.

At what point do we look back and realise that things still need to change?

*Not their real name

If you have experienced sexual harassment or assault, or want to talk about these issues, you can call 1800RESPECT. This service provides 24/7  professional counselling over the phone and is completely confidential.