Culture

A Look Inside The Rampant Culture Of Sexism And Assault At Australian Universities

We asked female uni students to tell us their stories. Here are their responses.

This article discusses sexual assault.

To start with a statement that has never not been true: last week wasn’t a good one for gender relations in Australia. While public attention largely focused on a guy taking photos of an unsuspecting woman in a Woolworths while the internet, the company and the media cheered him on, universities around the country were grappling with instances of sexism that exposed unsettling realities about the kind of culture that awaits women when they arrive on campus each day.

Last Tuesday, footage emerged of male students at the University of New South Wales’ Baxter College chanting a traditional college song with misogynistic and violent lyrics, prompting condemnation from university administration and student bodies. A day later, female students at multiple Victorian universities spoke out about popular resident Facebook pages where male students routinely post and ‘rate’ photos of women, uploading pictures of women taken without their consent, stealing Facebook profile pictures for ‘rating’ and posting details of women’s likely movements underneath them.

Sexism on university campuses is nothing new. In 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald exposed a “pro-rape” Facebook page run by students at Sydney University’s St Paul’s college. Three years later, an O-Week ritual at nearby St John’s College left a young woman hospitalised after male college students forced her to ingest an alcoholic cocktail containing shampoo and dog food. Subsequent investigations at both colleges uncovered rampant violent and threatening behaviour and a culture of rape, sexual assault and cover-ups.

Despite high-profile incidents like those at Baxter, John’s and Paul’s sticking in the public consciousness, it’d be a mistake to assume that sexism on campus is confined to residential colleges. Last year medical students at universities in Sydney and Melbourne revealed gendered bullying, harassment and “teaching by humiliation” was rife in medical schools, leading to a deeply entrenched culture of sexism in hospitals and surgeries. Similar stories abound in STEM subjects, contributing to an “exodus” of women from traditionally male-dominated research fields, while student newspapers like Sydney Uni’s Honi Soit regularly report on the casual sexism and ‘boy’s club’ mentality of student comedy, revue and performance scenes.

In light of all this, we issued a call-out for women who’ve experienced sexism, harassment, abuse and assault while at university to get in touch and share their stories. Women from campuses across the country contacted us, with stories covering every area of uni life — lectures and tutorials, college mixers and boardroom meetings, fellow students and teachers. For obvious reasons, all of the people who replied asked to remain anonymous.

While attending uni I was sexually assaulted at a uni party and often felt preyed on by older male students. Now I work at a uni and I am constantly belittled by male engineering academics. They over-explain things to me, address me as ‘girly’ and accuse me of taking things personally when I question something. I was hugged by a student inappropriately and reported it (nothing was done), I was yelled at by a male co-worker and reported it (nothing was done) and most recently I had a coworker ask me out over LinkedIn and then call me a leave a message on my work phone after I rejected him making me feel very uncomfortable. Universities are breeding grounds for misogynists.

In O-Week, there was half an hour (or maybe an hour) devoted to talking about sexual assault. I didn’t go because my faculty opening was also in that time slot. When I got back, though, there was a lot of joking around about it. The people who went had been split into men and women, and the women had got a ‘here’s some safety so you don’t get raped’ tips, and men had got some talk of consent, with it framed in a ‘well, you don’t want to be accused of anything you didn’t mean’ way. It was a running joke for the rest of the year. People would ask each other sarcastically “WWBWD?” As in “what would <presenter’s initials> do?”, essentially treating ensuring there was consent like a joke.

“I was sexually assaulted when I was at the college. It wasn’t by a college kid, it was by someone who I had invited in. But I never reported that, or told anyone about it, even to the RA at the college or anything, because it seemed like consent was such a joke to everyone there. I thought that I was going to be treated like because I was drunk and I had invited him, it would be thought of as my fault. It wasn’t a culture of support at all, and I spent most of the rest of my second year hiding in my room except when I had class, getting takeaway from the dining hall so I didn’t have to look at anyone else there, and slipped back into depression and bulimia. I was checked on by an RA once, and I think that was because I had let my room not be cleaned for too long. That was all.”

“The A-List is basically a list of the ‘five hottest women’ in the fresher year. Early in Semester 1, all of the sophomore and senior guys get together and go through a slideshow of photos of every incoming female fresher. They make comments and vote to compile the top five. The comments are documented and posted all over college the next day. One example from previous years is: ‘I would rather vomit on my own dick than sleep with her’.

“The top five are ‘crowned’ the following night, when a bunch of them run around college in their boxers and academic gowns, wearing masks and chanting while they bang on the doors of these terrified women. They’re pretty much called A1, A2, A3, A4, and A5 for the rest of their time at the college.”

“Recently a very senior academic called me ‘darling’. A male student rolled his eyes when I mention feminist discourse in class. A different male student addressed all his questions to my chest. A colleague joked about how my position of power probably meant ‘all the male students jerk off thinking about you.’ Great joke.”

“Where do I even start. In my classes, I was interrupted, talked over and dismissed over and over again. Often men in the class, particularly white men, would iterate the same points I had just made and would get a completely different response from the rest of the class and the tutor. While doing Honours, my male supervisor spent almost three times as much time with his male student than his two female students. When I wanted to bring gender into my thesis I was told that it had been ‘done to death’ and that I ‘needed to be reasonable’.

“In student council, and in discussions with male office bearers, my concerns for female student welfare were often ignored. It was implied that [the student union] was already ‘doing enough’ for female students. As an OB, there was also an expectation that whenever I went into meetings I would accept the ‘wisdom’ of long term staff. To get what I wanted for the students, I needed to pander to the egos of male managers. In one meeting was told I needed to ‘try to be reasonable’ and ‘rational’. Yes, really.”

“Early in my postgrad, I had a professor who made jokes about sleeping with me. He’d always make the jokes in public, never when we were alone. It was always just a joke. I’d laugh it off because what else are you supposed to do? He is a really charismatic guy and a brilliant teacher. Wife and two grown kids, though, of course. Once, when I was tutoring in one of his subjects, he said ‘I’m going to convince these students that we’re having a secret affair’ and made a remark to that effect about me in the lecture. It was a big class, about 150 students, all led to believe that I was only there because I was sleeping with my boss.

“The problem is, this man gave me a lot of breaks, wrote me glowing references and sang my praises whenever anyone asked, and really encouraged me to pursue my own research. I learned a lot from him, and I still aspire to teach the way he does. It’s hard to understand where the jokes even come from, or what purpose they serve. I never felt seriously harassed by them, I never felt pressured to sleep with him, but I was also never afforded the opportunity to have a professional working relationship with him. The jokes reminded me that I was female first, colleague second. If that.”

“I work in uni HR and all the heads of school are mostly men and the biggest complaint they share with our director is the ‘revolving door’ of HR (meaning they are annoyed that their HR support is getting pregnant). Also, in meetings, HR (mostly women) are expected to arrange catering and make crusty male academics cups of coffee. We’re supposed to work in a highly strategic field, but they plop us in very creepy gender roles.

“One dean complains about the compulsory requirement to have gender balance on all the panels (it’s a requirement that at least a third of the panel is comprised of women). He struggles with this because there are not a lot of women in the faculty. He could hire more senior women to remedy that but, you know, arguing about ‘gender balance’ is easier.”

“I was on a committee for a group of university students in 2014. Five men and three women were on the committee. The three women said that having a stripper at a men-only social event was offensive and inappropriate. We wanted the committee to do everything in our power to cease this ‘tradition’. We were over-ruled.”

“One of my subject coordinators who taught me for five years refused to pronounce my name correctly despite me calling him on it every second tutorial. Also, whenever he mentioned women he looked at me, waiting for me to comment. Once he said he ‘didn’t choose to be part of patriarchy’. Like it was a choice. Lots of privileged 20-something cis boys writing on women’s experiences was gross too.”

“When I was an undergrad I sat on a student committee for my residential college. A lot of the younger female students told me stories about the bullying behaviour of an older male RA. He had a habit of plying 17-year-olds with alcohol before having sex with them. He was also a bully, using private information against girls who wouldn’t sleep with him. He was in a paid pastoral care position. He was also part of the clique that sat at the top of the social hierarchy. He had a lot of power.

“I took the girls’ reports to the college head, a man in his mid-forties. He told me there was nothing he could do, the girls wouldn’t come forward themselves, they were ashamed or scared of the social fall out. He then rehired that RA for the next year. I wrote about if for the college paper, no names of course, and was kicked out for behaviour that did not comply with college policy.”

“When I was 17, I got drunk at a college party and had sex with two boys. Someone took pictures of it and circulated it around the college. There was some competition set up, like a points system for capturing ‘slutty’ fresher behaviour. That photo didn’t even win. When I asked my friend, who was older and running the competition, not to include it in the public slideshow he told me ‘you have to learn to take a joke’. I mean, I was so drunk someone had to tell me what had happened. I had barely even had sex before that.

“I remember walking through the food hall and knowing everyone knew. They looked me like I was shameful. I felt shameful. I don’t remember either of those boys looking anything but smug.”

“At O-Week some student political parties used to do a thing called ‘root to recruit’. It’s where you’d hit on someone you want, and get them to join the party after joining your pants party first.”

“I was just over 18 years old and this was one of my first lectures. I felt uncomfortable enough coming from a school where not many people go on to university, so to have my gender picked at too was infuriating — I worked really, really hard to be sitting there at all. The lecturer was giving an introduction to how ideas have evolved over time, and used this framework as a mask to sneakily argue for some atrociously outdated ideas as if they still had any merit. Two lines stand out:

‘Years ago, people would say a woman reading is like watching a dog stand on its hind legs.’

“He then gave a small back pedal about how that wasn’t really correct, but then finished that thought with: ‘but some would argue, where is the female Mozart? Where is the female Beethoven? Where is the female Da Vinci?’

“Nothing further was added as he shrugged and moved on. No one said anything. I was seething with rage but didn’t want to be that angry chick who yelled at a lecturer on her first day. So I figured I’d show him by topping the course and working my ass off. I read over the dense, wordy academia of Foucault about 50 times to ensure I understood it all. I approached by my tutor to clarify the difference between two separate terms in Foucault’s theory. He said he didn’t know and not to worry about it (he was awesome and very supportive).

“But it bothered me that this smug dick was handing down material that not even someone who had done their PhD by utilising it knew the answer to. So I stupidly emailed the lecturer and asked him directly. All I got was him correcting me calling him ‘Mr’ — that his official title was ‘Doctor’ and that he didn’t expect everyone to grasp the material. To this day I hate him.”

“In our first week, the girls were taken off, lectured about ‘staying safe’ and given a pink love heart rape alarm. I do not think the boys were taken off and told not to rape people.”

“The most common sexism I encountered was in tutorials when male students would essentially repeat (using different words) the same point that myself or another female student had just voiced. Sometimes they would bring up a point as though I had never spoken; other times they would sort of directly try to debate or argue with me/another female student, but in a roundabout way would voice the exact same opinion about whatever was being discussed.

“I found this happened more in my Philosophy classes which often had a majority of male students, in contrast to Media/Communications subjects which often saw female students in the majority. I also experienced it more in my undergraduate degree, with a younger student body, than in my postgraduate studies (but again my postgrad — publishing — was dominated by women).”

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) offers counselling, support or assistance for anyone who has experienced sexual assault or family violence.

Feature image via Meg Watson.