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Bachelors who major in abhorrent behaviour

By Nina Funnell - posted Friday, 13 November 2009

In September, Alexis Carey wrote a critical article about her time at one of the University of Sydney's most prestigious colleges. In part Carey wrote: "I attended a residential college from 2006 to 2007, and I experienced very real sexism and disrespect as a woman … 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."

More than 140 comments were registered on before the thread was closed down. Some thanked Carey for her frank account, but most of the comments - many of them by current and alumni collegians - ripped into her article as "just another unhappy feminist chant".

It was clear Carey had struck a nerve. Critics might say that the very nature of college - with its elaborate initiation ceremonies and bonding rituals - systematically encourages blind, unquestioning loyalty to the college code. However, many students genuinely love their college years and thrive during their time there and it is clear many collegians felt deeply offended and misrepresented by Carey's comments.


One alumni student wrote: "Sure we drank at times and missed that 8am lecture the next day, but blatant sexism, rape and violence? Get real. Definitely not like what you're describing."

Another wrote: "Please don't go throwing words like 'rape' around if you can't back it up with hard facts. Who was charged? When? Otherwise you are just scaremongering."

However, the recent St Paul's students' "Pro-Rape/Anti-Consent" Facebook scandal suggests colleges, like other male-dominated, privileged institutions, are not free from sexism or misogyny. Research from around the world unequivocally demonstrates that sexual assault and harassment are widespread within elite, male-governed institutions (like the military and church), and that cover-ups are endemic within these cultures.

The Facebook group, called "Define Statutory", was set up by a small number of individuals who are or have been associated with St Paul's College. The group has angered women's rights advocates everywhere and led to calls for an inquiry into the culture at St Paul's College.

No doubt there will be a long list of loyal advocates who will defend the college, pointing to its impressive honour role, and the fantastic opportunities it provides. Going by the responses to Carey's article, others may earnestly argue that they "never saw or heard of any rape while attending college".

Others may claim that journalists are exaggerating the problem, taking events out of context, and reframing ''harmless sexual shenanigans'' as acts of criminal deviancy. Some may acknowledge the problem only to blame the actions or intoxication levels of the women involved.


Noticeably, these are the exact same arguments that have been peddled in debates about rugby league players and rape.

And there are considerable parallels between the NRL and college cultures. Both cultures encourage a sense of elitism and - at times - unwarranted self-entitlement. Both are marked by enormous wealth and a diffusion of personal responsibility. Both are aligned with binge drinking and heavy partying and operate in cocooned spaces, divorced from the rest of society's values. Both are run through ''old-boy'' networks where allegiance to the confidentiality code is assumed.

The difference is that men from each culture typically come from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum: football players are generally blue-collar, working-class lads, while many college boys come from Australia's most prestigious, affluent families.

Clearly, men who hold misogynist and sexist attitudes can come from any class, community or culture.

The other significant difference is that David Gallop and the NRL's management have been prepared to admit that their culture needs changing, and they have been proactive about working in collaboration with expert feminists.

Rather than denying the problem or making scapegoats of the few individuals involved, let's hope that college heads closely analyse college culture. After all, these boys did not originally network over Facebook. They networked through an institution which boasts being Australia's oldest and most elite male college.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 10, 2009.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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