A recent report published by End Rape on Campus Australia found that universities have frequently failed to support victims of sexual assault and harassment in the aftermath of their experiences, and have even actively sought to cover up instances of sexual assault to avoid reputational damage. Given the often unacknowledged power of our response to events or disclosures, I thought it would be interesting to explore what I experienced after publishing an article about an incident at Burton and Garran Hall in 2016. Though this article is by no means intended to encompass the full range of responses to sexual assault and harassment at ANU, I think it provides an interesting case study for how peers and residential colleges choose to respond to such incidents when they are made very public in this way.
The incident took place on the dance floor during the ‘Thrift Shop’ mixer at B&G in August last year. I had been dancing with a friend to Daddy Cool’s ‘Eagle Rock’ when several male peers circled us and linked arms with one another – effectively trapping us, and other women, in their circle. These men then dropped their pants to their ankles, and many watched on hungrily as women in the circle stripped off their shirts and danced. Though I tried to leave the circle, some of my male peers blocked me from doing so.
Feeling deeply unsettled by the experience, I decided to relay the ordeal in a Woroni article. I argued that these sorts of behaviours allow a culture of objectification to manifest itself within colleges – a culture which tells first-year boys who take part in these practices that objectifying women, as well as taking away their ability to give consent, is acceptable from the outset of their university degrees.
Though I had expected some controversy to arise upon the publication of the article, I could never have anticipated the backlash that I was to receive when someone posted the article in a B&G Facebook group. What ensued was a whirlwind of comments, ‘angry’ reactions and heated online arguments. Many accused me of overreacting and of misrepresenting what had happened to me. I was told that it was all ‘just a bit of fun’ and that I was attacking a much-loved B&G ‘tradition’ that was central to college culture. The backlash continued to escalate throughout the night, with some residents blasting the ‘Eagle Rock’ song down the hallways in protest.
Despite this backlash, I quickly realised that writing the article was the best decision I could have made. For every negative reaction I had received, there were many more women bravely sharing their own ‘Eagle Rock’ stories on both the Facebook post and in private messages to me. It became apparent that my experience was by no means unique, and it was regularly the case that first-year girls were unwittingly caught up in the ‘Eagle Rock’ tradition during their first week at college. More often than not, they were left feeling scarred by the experience. Many students disclosed to me that they left the dance floor whenever ‘Eagle Rock’ had been played at B&G events, some even hiding in the bathrooms. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people reaching out to me, thanking me for starting the conversation about this ‘tradition’ that made so many feel objectified and powerless.
As a result of these disclosures, B&G’s Residents Committee decided to hold an open meeting. As I was making my way to the meeting, I overheard a large group of boys talking about how they were going to attend the meeting and ‘fuck shit up’ for those of us who wanted to see the ‘tradition’ banned. Sure enough, these boys were all in attendance, many of them smirking at me as I walked into the room. However, as the meeting progressed and women were sharing their experiences, I was pleased to see the arrogance of these boys slip away, some even appearing embarrassed. The meeting was a success overall. Most who came shared their opinions and possible solutions in a calm, considered manner, and agreed that, above all, change was necessary.
After consultation with staff and students, the B&G Members Association developed a policy regarding how they would approach the practice of the ‘Eagle Rock’ in the future. The new policy would ban the encircling of women by male students during the Eagle Rock. The song will also be banned at mixers, external venues and during formal events. Additionally, it was decided that new B&G residents will now receive information about the ‘past practices’ of the Eagle Rock, and will be given a warning before the song is played to allow students time to decide whether they will take part or leave the dance floor. If this policy is to be implemented, then it seems the B&G Members Association took the concerns raised by students seriously. The new policy addresses most major issues outlined in the Eagle Rock article and will be an important step towards making residents feel safer at B&G.
What was less heartening was the treatment I received from many of my peers. Despite the article describing the helplessness and shock I felt at finding myself trapped in the circle, many still found it appropriate to berate me for speaking out. A number of those posting angry comments clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article at all. However, I was most disappointed by peers who did read the article. Evidently, these residents (predominately men) decided very quickly that being able to have a good time with their mates was more important than ensuring peers felt safe at parties in their home.
What bothers me most about this is not the fact that the backlash ‘hurt my feelings’, it’s that other women may now be too scared to speak out about other college experiences that make them uncomfortable. This process has only served to confirm my fears that, despite the best efforts of the ANU Women’s Department and others on campus, sexist attitudes remain woven into college culture at ANU. And it’s these attitudes that continue to threaten the safety of women in residential halls nationwide.
Despite this backlash and anger, the Eagle Rock hasn’t been played at any B&G events this year, and its absence has passed without any formal complaint. The world goes on turning.