A Cultural Revolution: Sexism in Residential Halls

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As a second year resident at Burgmann College, I haven’t been overly involved in political debates or feminist causes. In fact, the most I’ve done is chuck a supportive ‘like’ on Facebook posts that reflect my beliefs. I, like a lot of residents, believe in the feminist cause, but in the past I have not ‘bothered’ to show it. After the recent unfolding of events at Johns, however, I’ve realized the importance of adding my voice to the cause and taking up the responsibility, as a resident, to advocate for bringing sexism to an end within college life.

Thankfully, the residential halls within ANU have already reached ‘formal equality’, in that all colleges have female and male RAs/SRs and equal opportunities exist for all residents, regardless of gender. Nevertheless, the problem of sexism remains, lurking within the informal aspects of life that persist in the halls of our colleges – in conversations, interactions and social traditions.

It is important to realize that sexism exists on a spectrum. The majority of sexism that takes place in residential halls aren’t the extreme examples that first come to mind. Instead, sexism takes place implicitly, by omission, through comments that stem from ignorance, and from lack of attention or thought. The problem arises when this implicit sexism goes passively unchecked. We let rogue comments, double standards and subtle sexist digs slide. This perpetuates a sexist culture in subtle ways, allowing the situation to fester and escalate. Relatively minor changes need to be brought about by each and every one of us, so that things do not escalate to a point where extreme actions are the only answer, such as the recent John’s expulsions.

The power of speaking out is severely under-rated, but due to the ease of sitting by, it is also extremely hard to do. This is especially hard for women who are expected to play a passive and oppressed role. When I was discussing writing this article with a friend, she told me a story that perfectly encapsulates the toxic culture of inaction. During dinner, a shockingly sexist comment was made by a big name at College. It left me open-mouthed, staring with disbelief at my friend who had relayed it to me. It not only belittled women, but also the seriousness of drink spiking and rape. Shockingly, instead of being met with the outrage it deserved, the comment was met with laughter. Although my friend did not join in the laughter, she was too afraid to call the perpetrator out, as no one else seemed to share her shock and disbelief. She explained that she feared coming across as ‘overly-dramatic’ or ‘emotional’ for ‘complaining’ about feminist issues, especially against such a big name, a feeling many of us can relate too. She began to doubt whether she had a right to react – but she did. It is important for us to cultivate a culture that rewards those who stand up, rather than silence them. Until we do, those who feel wronged will continue to suffer in silence to maintain friendships, which should never be the case.

As I have seen, once someone identifies as a feminist, they are a put in a position where they are constantly judged. They are either seen as ‘extremists’ and disgustingly titled a ‘feminazi’, or aren’t extreme enough in their behaviour and are then viewed as hypocritical. In either situation, their view is marginalsed, and thus, disregarded. This is a culture that we ourselves have created, and thus, is one we can end. If we all view ourselves as feminists and maintain a zero tolerance attitude, the fear of being different will whittle away, and so will the ability to get away with sexism and other forms of discrimination. For this to happen, we have to be brave enough to take the first step, act as an example, and start a domino effect that will create a positive change – this involves voicing your own opinion instead of echoing some-one else’s through a nod or ‘Facebook ‘like’.

Sexism is all about stereotyping and generalisations. In residential halls, we have a unique opportunity to break down these walls due to the intimacy of living together in a microcosm of the broader society. We see firsthand  the diverse struggles each of us face – to look good for nights out, to survive social drama, and to succeed academically. Residents gain a clear understanding of who other residents are as individuals, and we need to embrace the opportunity for change that this understanding offers us.

We are all bigger than our genders. Boys will be boys’ is not an excuse for oppressive conduct. If something about females is being said that wouldn’t be appropriate to say in front of a female, then it isn’t appropriate in front of anyone.

I am not the type of person to comment on big social issues. Even writing this article, I’ve found it challenging to express my views for fear of seeming aggressive or stepping on someone’s toes. I understand the ease of being a passive bystander, but the truth is that it simply isn’t acceptable. The duty of advocating for a culture of safety and acceptance in a place we call home is too important to ignore. This is the start of my stand for such an important issue, and I hope it may help to inspire others to start using their voices too.

The most important way in which the sexist culture of residency halls can change is through small individual changes. If everyone adds their voice – even if only on a small scale as I do here – advocacy against sexism will go from a whisper to a deafening chorus that can’t be ignored.