This article is about an incident that has greatly changed the way I view the culture of my college, and my home: Burton and Garran Hall. The incident took place on the dance floor at the B&G/Ursula Hall ‘Thrift Shop’ mixer in August this year, and I feel it embodies the toxic culture that underpins many women’s experiences at residential colleges at ANU. On the night of the mixer, my friend and I had been talking in the games room. When we heard the familiar opening riff of Daddy Cool’s ‘Eagle Rock’, we ran to the dance floor. For a while, we were in our own bubble, laughing at each other’s terrible dancing. I noticed a few of my male friends had begun to put their arms around each other, but I didn’t pay much attention at the time.
When I eventually took stock of my surroundings, I saw that all of the girls dancing around us had removed their shirts. I threw a confused look at my friend, who looked equally perplexed. A few seconds later, I felt someone tugging at my own shirt. “Take it off Emily”, urged a friend of mine, continuing to her attempts to lift my shirt off. Surprised, and a little shocked, I pulled away from her. Now uncomfortable, I turned to leave the dance floor. Only, I couldn’t. We had been encircled by a group of my male college mates, who had linked arms with one another, effectively leaving us women trapped in the circle. Many of these men had dropped their pants to their ankles, exposing their underwear. However, unlike my shirtless friends in the middle of the circle, most of the men weren’t dancing. They were watching us.
Though some were laughing, others were watching on with hungry expressions, looking at us like we were meat. I can only describe my feelings in that moment as a mixture of helplessness, anger and disappointment, that all-too-familiar feeling that comes with being objectified, yet again, against one’s will. Only this time, these feelings were compounded by the fact that many of these men were people whom I profoundly respected. Men who regularly preached feminist ideals, or purported to.
When the song finished, I approached another college friend and asked her whether she had ever witnessed this phenomenon. She said that this was the norm at Burton and Garran Hall, and she too had found herself trapped in the middle of the ‘Eagle Rock’ circle during her first year. This prompted more questions. How on earth did this bizarre ‘tradition’ kick off? Did it start with one girl removing her clothes, and the men surrounding her on the dance floor? And why the Eagle Rock of all songs?
That night, as I was lying in bed, I was trying to ascertain just why I felt so deeply unsettled about the night’s events, given that many of the women I was dancing with (themselves often vocal feminists) seemed to find nothing amiss in this scenario. Just as puzzling was why many of my well-educated, progressive male peers, many of whom are outwardly supportive of women’s rights, also seemed to engage in this behaviour without a moment’s thought. I know what many of those reading this, particularly those from B&G, will be thinking: if we women consented to taking part in this ‘circle’ and seemed to enjoy ourselves, then what’s the problem? Isn’t this just a manifestation of the women’s sexual liberation movement? Shouldn’t I be happy that these women were free to remove their shirts in a public setting?
A major issue, of course, is that not every woman who found herself in the circle actually consented to being there. Based on the experiences of other women I’ve spoken to, it all-too-frequently arises that unsuspecting first year women (some under the age of 18) become trapped in the middle of the circle and feel pressured to remove their shirts. When our male peers form a tight circle around us, we are essentially stripped of an escape route should we decide that we don’t want to be involved. It cannot be said that all women in the circle were simply having a ‘good time’, and that nobody was ‘forced’ to take part.
When you strip us of our ability to walk away, you strip us of our ability to give consent.
Beyond that, the act itself is inherently gendered. As usual, it is us women who are expected to parade our bodies around for the gratification of male onlookers. Of course, many women enjoy sexualising themselves in this way, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, what bothers me is that we would never see the tables turned. It is not as if we swapped roles halfway through the song and watched on as the men shook their genitalia around for us. Many would find such a proposition laughable. But why should it be laughable in one case and not the other?
I am also left asking why it is only permissible for us women to remove our shirts in public when men allow us to do so. Is it truly a ‘liberating’ experience to remove our shirts for the viewing of our male peers if we would be condemned for doing so in any other setting? I’d say probably not. Once again, our breasts have been transformed into purely sexual organs, and we are only welcome to show them in public at the behest of men. In my mind, this is a manifestation of oppression, not liberation, and will continue to be so until I am allowed to be seen publically shirtless in a non-sexual context, just as my male friends are.
I recognise that many will still perceive this act as a little harmless fun. Nobody was assaulted or hurt (to my knowledge), and people seemed to enjoy themselves. However, a problem arises when this culture of objectification is allowed to manifest itself on college campuses. When first year boys see/take part in this behaviour in O-Week, they are taught that objectifying women in this manner is acceptable from the outset of their university careers. It is incidents like these that make it unsurprising to me when I see the astronomically high rate of sexual assault in residential colleges at ANU. I know that most of the men who surrounded us in the Eagle Rock are decent people, and wouldn’t dream of sexually assaulting any of us. However, for all the men who wouldn’t, statistically speaking, there was probably one among them who will go on to do just that.
Photo credit: Becky Van Ommen