Living at college in ignorance and bliss

In Latin, alma mater means nurturing mother. In so many ways, the residential college I attended was my nurturing mother. It was also the sexy older sister: seemingly confident and knowing, yet knowing so little. I started to become who I am today at college and those three years in the early Noughties are the crucible of my longest, strongest friendships, of my identity as a powerful and unapologetic professional woman.

But, ten years later, the shadows that lurk uncomfortably in my memories are hard to ignore. And it is this underbelly that has been exposed in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities: students who lived at college are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. And my personal experience suggests that a pernicious and resilient culture of insularity, socially constructed behavioural norms, socially encouraged high-risk behaviour and secret traditions must be addressed before colleges can truly be safe places for young people.

Released in August 2017, the AHRC report presented damning findings: around half of all university students (51%) were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. Overwhelmingly, men were the perpetrators. Overwhelmingly, the perpetrator was known to the victim, likely a fellow student.

The survey also uncovered attitudinal and structural barriers to reporting assault and harassment, victim dissatisfaction with institutional responses when reports were made, and very low confidence amongst the survey set that enough was being done to protect students and support victims.

A particular area of concern highlighted by the AHRC report was that college students (that is, students who live on campus in residential settings owned by or affiliated with the university) represented a disproportionate number of victims: seven per cent of the survey respondents identified as living on campus, but they represented 34 per cent of students who had been assaulted.

I was not surprised. I knew those insular halls would hold the worst secrets. And I was sickened: not by the figures, but by the memories that immediately attached themselves to these figures, tugging at my conscience. Daring to be remembered beneath those happy images of friendship, and debauch parties, and sunny antics. Daring me to remember my complicity. My role as victim. My role as bystander. So here are the things that I think combine to create a more high-risk environment for sexual assault and harassment in Australian colleges.

Insularity created a permissive environment both for crimes occurring and perpetrators being protected. It created an over-confidence in our safety. I moved 700km away from home to attend university and my parents insisted I stay at college. They thought it was safest. There were about 1000 collegians all together and there was a sense we all knew each other if not personally, then we certainly knew people in common. At the very least, we knew what ‘type’ everyone was based on the college that had become their family.

From across a crowded first day lecture theatre, the ruggers and jersey that we always wore (often without shoes), the single book and pen carried (as we were so close to home), marked us out as instant allies. You’re a Jabba? I go to Women’s!  A friendship was instantly established based on mutual friends, upcoming parities and legendary rivalries. From the lecture theatre to parties and bars: what did it matter if you went home with a random guy you’d never met before? You probably knew a few guys in the hallway and you were only 200 m from home anyway. I rarely socialised with non-collegians. They thought we were weird.

The AHRC report highlights something I knew to be true: organisational contexts can play a role in increasing violence – especially sexual violence – against women. The report points to ‘all male residential colleges’ as being of particular concern. In my experience, the all male colleges were able to amplify the behavioural norms of hyper-masculinity. In the social microcosm that is the college community, we absorbed mutually created social roles and rules. We played them up and we perpetuated them. I knew of one young man allegedly sexually assaulted by his supposed brothers because it was rumoured he was gay.

Reference to his assault became a popular chant at inter-college sporting events. These colleges, so steeped in a regressive and binary view of gender, remain incredibly out of step with progressive society. While plenty of evidence exists for the ongoing importance of women’s only spaces (both for safety and ensuring opportunity), all male colleges should be abandoned by society, for in some dark and forgotten corners of these residences, a musty, out-dated and violent form of patriarchy flourishes like a fungus.

These college-constructed gender norms dictated our relationship experiences. We knew what consent safe sex were in theory. But in practice we didn’t know how to own our bodies. There was a hazy area between having fun and things going too far that none of us really knew how to negotiate. I was once pressed to do something I didn’t want to do. My demurs were couched in that faintly Victorian language that marks one as a lady not wishing to seem easy, not wishing to offend. Now it would be clear: this isn’t something I’m into so you need to stop and back the hell up. Right now.

At the time, I thought, ‘what an incredible compliment that he wants me so badly! I mustn’t ruin this and embarrass myself by coming across as frigid’.

I escaped because of a distraction. This is why – with their captured audience of young people at risk of sexual harassment and assault – colleges must teach consent beyond getting a yes out of someone eventually. That’s not consent, that’s acquiescence. Consent must be be vocal, ongoing and enthusiastic. For the latter to happen, colleges need to encourage embodied sex positivity: for all genders, for all sexualities. In that environment, I couldn’t be enthusiastic any more than I could forcefully say no. Enthusiastic is as bad as frigid in a patriarchal world.

As the AHRC report notes, college life is drenched in booze – tickets to parties where endless home-mixed drinks were served out of garbage bins; free busses to bars that offered $2 spirits.  We were in our homes with our families though, so we felt safe despite our high-risk behaviours. So many times we rescued each other and laughed about how crazy we’d been.

In hindsight things were not right. The whispers when one girl didn’t return for a second year. I heard something about her passing out in a room with a bunch of guys, about her waking up saying she hadn’t wanted that to happen. No more questions were asked. It seemed shameful and undignified. We were collegians – leading lights of the future. We didn’t get into messes like that. Now, I see clearly what really happened ­– a culture of secrecy, an expectation that we would drink to excess, boys trying to prove their masculinity with sexual conquests, girls not knowing how to say no.

In these socially pressuring environments, it is easy to see how consent would be distorted by an expectation to participate in tradition. Mascots were a symbol of these ‘hallowed rites’. My college had a doll as its mascot. Each college would try to steal mascots. If successful, that mascot would be subject to some mildly humiliating photo shoot.

A few years ago, my friends and I reunited our college’s centenary ball, the old and the new smooshed together in a grand ballroom. We were shown footage of our mascot’s recent demise. Mary – our mascot, – was strung by the neck and dangled out of a window. Residents of the men’s college were screaming sexual obscenities at her. She was dropped to the ground and a ute drove over her repeatedly. She was set alight and the assembled crowd jeered with college pride.

I shook uncontrollably and tears of rage filled my eyes. This was nothing to do with college pride and all to do with sexual assault. Yet, important person after important person (all quite famous) rose to the stage for speeches, promising vengeance on this apparently light-hearted prank. That’s the final thing wrong with the colleges: they’re self-perpetuating. Each generation goes further than the last in the pursuit of holding up the traditions, the rules and the roles we were sworn into. Colleges need to step back and critique these traditions and games. After eight years away from the college environment, I could see this problematic behaviour for what it was.

At college, I learned that women could be celebrated for their wisdom and professional success. Ambition was championed. Opportunity seemed limitless. I loved college. But. To look back on these years is difficult. With maturity, self-confidence and a better grasp of feminism, I see how toxic many ingrained behaviours and traditions were. Colleges derive their cultural strength and endurance from insularity, privilege, money, elitism and deference to accepted behaviours. Colleges spit people into society who believe this is ok.

Colleges must take responsibility for ensuring ongoing sex positive consent education, disavowing lingering sexism and privilege, critiquing and reviewing traditions, and creating a culture of belief and support for victims. My instincts are that the situation is much worse than the AHRC report tells: the college community has a way of protecting itself, of creating and sustaining culture. Those close to the problem may not realise the truth of what is going on for some years, if indeed they ever do. It took me ten years after all.

Image: Victoria Heath


Naomi Barnbaum is a Canberra-based public servant, having fled more humid climes in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. Naomi’s writing has appeared in Feminartsy, and she musters her musings on Outside of writing, Naomi loves dogs, books, music (both as performer and spectator), and truly terrible television.

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