A "pro-rape" Facebook group set up by students at the University of Sydney's elite St Paul's College has ignited a debate about the sexist culture and behaviour in university colleges.
The group has since been shut down, but it described itself as "anti-consent" and "pro-rape", said the November 9 Sydney Morning Herald. It was allegedly set up to promote a college football team.
No member of the Facebook group commented to the media. However, student representative council president Noah White told the November 10 SMH: "It is widely recognised that there is a real problem with sexism and sexual harassment within the University of Sydney college system."
The warden of St Paul's College has responded by making it clear that this Facebook group wasn't an official college site, and that "the College holds all forms of sexual assault, rape or any proven incitement to rape to be abhorrent".
The SMH had published articles about experiences of sexism by women living at University of Sydney colleges before.
On September 15, Alexis Carey wrote "I attended a residential college from 2006 to 2007, and I experienced very real sexism and disrespect as a woman during this time. 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.
"A gender equity meeting held to address the very real concerns of a large group of women about the general attitude towards them at college was met with derision and scorn."
I had my own experience of university college life at the University of New England in 2002. The college had strong traditions like college songs, annual drinking nights and formal dinners, most of which dated from the 1970s.
On one hand it promoted a sense of community and strong friendships between students and could be a lot of fun. But fun traditions are one thing — explicit sexism is another.
In my time at college, the older men were effectively in control and so they could get away with behaving badly (although not all of them did).
Some of the "traditions" were definitely very degrading for women, such as the "tradition" of answering the mandatory question at the regular floor meetings about whether we had had sex with anyone that week. Other "traditions" involved public humiliation.
Other practices weren't good for anyone. At our annual drinking night, the men tried to scull a bottle of rum and the women tried to drink entire bag of goon — everyone ended up blind drunk and passed out. In 2004, a man from that college jumped into a fountain after leaving the university bar one night and broke his neck, ending up a quadriplegic.
The online comments thread on the November 9 SMH article featured claims that the Facebook group was satirical and ironic. Others tried to downplay it as an isolated example.
But many more comments were from people who had lived at colleges and had experienced harassment similar to that mentioned by Carey.
In a letter to the SMH published the next day, Peter McNeil, a professor at the University of Technology, drew on his experience at a University of Queensland college in the mid 1980s. "Australian colleges are protected bastions of male privilege. Women have to either find a way to laugh it off in a blokeish manner or try to fit in."
Too often sexist behaviour on campuses is justified by the claim that it is an isolated incident and not representative of all students. Otherwise the people who complain are dismissed as having no sense of humour or of pushing their own agenda.
This attitude is not limited to college life; it reflects sexism that exists everywhere in capitalist society.
The debate is similar to the uproar about how women are treated in male-dominated sports, after many incidents this year of football players attacking women. There are similarities between football culture and college culture, particularly the elite atmosphere, the male dominance, the heavy drinking and the sexism towards women.
Because colleges are tight-knit communities, criticising this culture or reporting rape and abuse when it happens can be hard. It means that rapes are often unreported and the abuse continues.
Rape and sexual assault against women is abhorrent. When it happens, people need to speak out against it. But speaking out is only a part of the solution. We need strong campaigns against sexual violence and abuse — built into a women's movement that fights against all forms of women's oppression and for total liberation of women. Building a strong women's liberation movement is just as important today as ever.