Sexism in Residential Colleges

Content Warning: Sexual Harassment and Assault

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Sexism in residential colleges within Australia is at epidemic proportions. We have all heard the stories, shaken our heads and passed them on with words of sorrow and pity for the women. It is much easier to face when it is not you, and it is much easier to judge when it is not your friends who are the perpetrators. But the sad truth of the matter is, that often enough, they are.

A series of photos, videos, and sexist words were flung around a Facebook message group consisting of between 20 and 30 (hardly) men, who have too much power and influence in our residential college. I happened to have a “pretty tight relationship” as one of them noted, with these sickeningly self-assured young adults, and I happened to be majorly the subject matter of their taunts.

It was a formal dinner at the start of the year and one of the men created a group message consisting of the second and third year ‘boys club’ members. The night was filled with eating, drinking and dancing, all documented in an online forum with the sole purpose of judging the ‘best mooeys (breasts) on show’ for the night.

A month later a close male friend of mine presented to me the series of messages. I read from the top and scrolled down, sifting through pages and pages of disrespectful words, and the close up photos and videos of mine and a few other girls’ cleavages, who were conveniently sitting opposite the photographers. Silly us, so ignorantly unaware of who we were sharing our meal with.

Like mindless sheep following suit, a handful of the men captured and uploaded images of my body. Seasoned with comments of sexist slurs, that included proposals of raping me – all the while I cheerfully sat opposite them. I sat at the dining table feeling happy and confident in the friendships I had with these guys I had known for two years. We had shared over 100 breakfasts, lunches and dinners, but most importantly, adventures, laughs and celebrations. I was oblivious to the level of respect they actually had for me, and the degradation that was coming my way.

After reading the entire sequence of messages, a series of emotions came over me. I was weirdly flattered, embarrassed, devastated, and finally deflated. I told no one, filled with shame; shame that I could be remotely flattered, shame that my actions could have provoked it, and shame in my confidence in the friendships I had with a handful of the men. Unable to process it, scared to tell anyone in fear of it coming out, I suppressed it. Months later it surfaced into the college community and I began to unravel.

I wish I could say that I am over it and have risen above it, but I am not and I have not. I am heartbroken and I am furious. The objectification and inferior nature with which women are regarded and treated in these residential environments has played on my mind since first attending the college in 2014. I could list countless times when women at my college have been excluded and put down due to their biological ‘inferiority’ in these environments, and I can bet, as a reader, you can name a few too.

In my case, the college administration – once alerted to the offence – swiftly meted out punishment and I have had their full support. I am not saying that every man in these environments is guilty of such sexism/bullying, but rather, that an influential, poisonous culture exists.

Unfortunately what happened here happens in a range of forms, better or indeed much worse, in residential halls all over the world. These men arrive at college as boys, unaware of how to operate around the opposite sex, and are thus easily and shamefully influenced by their ‘superior’ peers. Macho attitudes and bravado appear to be attractive qualities and progressively these boys, influenced by the example set by old hands, take on these personas. This is where the segregation of the genders begins and this is where the objectification of women is perpetuated.

These men need to recognize that all the women they reside with are their equals, not objects. Their attitudes affect their female friends and residents in ways that are unimaginable. The biggest crime is that the women leave the college disempowered, undermined and unaware of their potential in all areas of life. I do not want to believe that these experiences are inevitable in the lives of women in university, the workplace and the domestic sphere, but sadly it seems it’s true. This issue needs attention. Sexism in residential halls is fed by an entrenched culture that elevates perpetrators of this behaviour to an iconic status amongst their peers. Ambitiously, I hope one day no one has to feel as low as I have felt as a result of the careless actions of sexist pigs.

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault there are support networks available for you. Follow this link http://www.anu.edu.au/students/services/health-wellbeing/finding-help-and-support-if-you-have-been-sexually-assaulted or email sa.womens@anu.edu.au. You can also call 1800RESPECT 24/7.