The horrors of hazing and sexual violence in Sydney colleges

A rally against violence against women, at the University of Sydney on February 28. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

A damning new investigative report has detailed the dark culture of degrading misogynistic harassment, sexual violence and the dangerous, disgusting hazing rituals that take place behind the sandstone walls of the most prestigious of Sydney’s residential colleges.

Investigators reviewed almost 90 years of newspaper reporting on University of Sydney college scandals. The report found evidence that current traditions date back several decades.

Entitled The Red Zone — a term used by sexual health specialists for the annual spike in sexual and physical assaults they see every orientation week (O-Week) — the report by a team of fierce young women associated with End Rape on Campus Australia was launched on February 26 to coincide with university O-Week, the most dangerous week of the year to be a woman on campus. One in eight attempted and completed sexual assaults women experience in the Sydney University residential colleges occur during this week.

According to the report, one in 12 Women’s College students will experience attempted or completed rape during their time at college. But they are never in as much danger as in the first week of term.

The NSW Rape Crisis Centre confirmed that they receive an increase in calls for help from university students during and immediately following O-Week. “We don’t need a calendar to know when O-Week is on,” said Executive Officer of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre Karen Willis. “We can tell every year from the spike in calls to our rape crisis service.”

Humiliating behaviour

The report paints a graphic picture of the humiliating and intimidating behaviour that female students are subjected to on campus.

It included an account from a recent St Andrew’s resident who described a practice in which, if female residents left shampoo, conditioner or body milk in the bathroom, male students would ejaculate into the container so that the girls would then unknowingly wash with a mixture of the product and semen.

The report also found that senior male students targetted junior female students, as evidenced in events such as the "Bait Cruise" (in which older students selected younger students for a Wesley cruise), "Fresher Five" (in which St John’s men vote on the top five incoming fresher girls in terms of attractiveness) and the "Bone Room", (a St Paul’s event where older students prey on younger female students from the Women’s College in a large room filled with mattresses).

The report refers to an annual event at St John’s called "The Purge", which was still occurring last November, where students are encouraged to post embarrassing and graphic details online about other students’ sexual activity, including photographs.

In 2012, a girl at St John’s College was taken to hospital after she was forced to drink a toxic mixture of shampoo, sour milk, dog food and alcohol in an initiation ritual.

Thirty-three students were suspended from the college, but at the end of the year, seven of those, calling themselves “the Untouchables”, were elected onto the college’s governing council into roles including president, treasurer and secretary.

The list of harmful hazing rituals continues. Students are made to drink beer from another person's penis, set fire to their pubic hair to win a competition and bash intoxicated students who fall from trees in a game called “Dead Possum”.

The report references dozens of documented examples of sexual assault and harassment at the colleges, including one horrific case in 1977, where the partially clothed body of student Annette Morgan was found on the grounds of St Paul’s College. She had been raped and murdered. She was 18 years old.

The report shows that just five days after her body was found, St Paul’s students awarded the “Animal Act of the Year” trophy to four male students accused of gang raping a Women’s College student.

These abuses, which End Rape on Campus has documented meticulously over 200 pages, occurred over decades, but none sparked a serious intervention. The culture of hazing and sexual violence remains very much alive in 2018. The rituals are defended as tradition and all in good fun, and certainly they are traditions, concretised over almost 100 years.

University management fails

Sydney University’s Vice Chancellor Michael Spence has said that he is powerless to put an end to hazing, despite calls for change over the years.

The Australian Human Rights Commission last November recommended a federal taskforce investigate the residential colleges notorious for hazing. But colleges are hiding behind a complex structural barrier by which they are governed by their own Act of state parliament which, according to Spence, blocks the University of Sydney from taking action. Most of these Acts are so old that they predate federation and have not been altered since the 1850s.

Universities and college administrations have failed these students. While some states in the US already have anti-hazing laws, Australia has no such laws. The authors of The Red Zone have called for a federal taskforce to make drastic external intervention.

Hazing and rape linked

One of the co-authors of the report, Nina Funnel, said the issues of sexual violence and hazing are linked and “the initiation culture can contribute to the systemic erosion of a student's boundaries and sense of privacy”.

It is not difficult to see how a concoction of rich, privileged male students, misogyny, sexual entitlement, alcohol abuse and the protection of the sandstone walls that seem to be a law unto themselves have produced a toxic campus culture in which violent hazing and rape flourish.

As co-author of The Red Zone Anna Hush told a crowd of students at a protest at Sydney University on February 28, this violent culture is “inside the walls of these universities. It’s like asbestos.”

University of Sydney women's officer Jessica Syed said: “We're not going to accept PR band-aid solutions onto what is a really endemic problem that has been going on, as The Red Zone report outlined, for over 50 years.”

University of Sydney SRC President Imogen Grant echoed Hush, saying "These abuses have been happening for a century — yet nothing has changed."

The passing down of violent customs reveals the intergenerational agent that ingrains behaviour that should never be repeated, as “tradition”. College alumni themselves are some of the loudest advocates of hazing. As parents and older siblings, they continue to send succeeding generations to be traumatised in the same way they were, justifying their own experiences to new students, as “rites of passage”.

It is true that many of the university’s most powerful alumni have been steeled against suffering through this process.

Consider the politicians who are blind to atrocities on Manus Island and Nauru and the weekly deaths of Australian women at the hands of their intimate partners. Consider the bloodthirsty CEOs and bankers who obsess over maximising their obscene profits and wring dry the poorest in society.

These brutal hazing practices flourish within the most prestigious bastions of wealth and privilege. If their role is to erode the humanity from the next generation of leaders and the rich, then they work.

While the report recommends urgent action to quell the danger students face in the first week of the semester, some student activists say the colleges need to be shut and their hazing culture stamped out definitively so next year students do not suffer the same fate as the students of the past century.

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