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pissed off feminist fights back: a toxic culture

A recent St John’s College function at Sydney University.

I’ve been thinking about writing this article for the better part of a week now. I kept second guessing and thinking to myself that I couldn’t do my own anger justice. But it’s been on my mind this whole time. Thankfully the 24-hour news cycle means I don’t feel so bad about taking my time to really dwell on the issues at St. John’s College, Sydney, as new updates are published every day. Hopefully this can encapsulate some of the issues at stake.

St. John’s College is an independent Catholic college established in 1858 and is part of the University of Sydney. Sydney Uni has no control over what happens there. The rules regarding its governance are actually enshrined in 19th century state law and do not take into account modern administrative rules. So this is the oldest and most backwards Catholic college in the country. Which may point us towards a questionable conclusion that sums up its recent journey into disrepute – they’re still being governed by, in an administrative sense and moral/social sense, archaic rules.

I was a Catholic schoolgirl for 13 years. I understand what Catholic teachings are on many issues (and I agree with some and choose to disregard others) and I understand that what goes on inside of St. John’s is not representative of Catholic young people. But I also recognise that these long-standing institutions need an upgrade for the 21st century.

To be honest, when I graduated from high school, I didn’t know that St. John’s existed. That might have something to do with their high standards regarding the calibre of their new students. They didn’t come to my suburban Catholic school to recruit. In a school of less than 300, most would be from a private school background. I make the assumption that such a background means some amount of wealth, although that may not necessarily be true. But bear with me and gather up your preconceived negative notions of private school boys. All of these appear to be true of some of the students at St. John’s.

Recently they’ve done such delightful things as smearing shit in the rooms of first years, breaking furniture, vandalising the college and setting fire to college property. This is a school that invited girls from the nearby Sancta Sophia College over only to chant ‘Yes means yes, and no means yes’ thus threatening sexual violence. Now you might say that those are only empty words. They don’t necessarily make these boys rapists. That’s true. They’re not. But it does point to a certain way of thinking about women and women’s lack of agency. Women don’t even have the right to refuse. And perhaps if they were so inclined they would act upon their chant. Who can say?

In March, a “fresher” was hospitalised, as 33 students denied her right to refuse to consume a lethal drink made from dog food, shampoo, off-milk, Tabasco sauce and liquor. And you might think that she has a choice, but when the choice is between acceptance in a social group and the wrath of 33 young, strong men, it’s not really much of one. Even just think of what they call this initiation ritual –“justice.” Why justice? How is it just to degrade women simply for being young women?

The students involved were never properly disciplined. Because their wealth meant they could appeal in court the rector’s decision to suspend them, insist they complete community service, and make them ineligible to run for student council. The latter two punishments were overturned in court. After all, the administration is concerned for the boys and their reputations, rather than the victimised women. They ought to be able to bring their toxic way of thinking into the professional world. And so in school they continue to run amok. In a big “fuck you” to the administration and the girl involved, they printed “justice” shirts. Because these are people who don’t have to face consequences. And when they do, for some bizarre reason, the higher echelons of our legal system are involved so the misbehaving students receive “due process.” But does university misbehaviour really require a legal trial? Isn’t that absurd?

Tony Abbott was a Johnsman. And we know that university was where he first dabbled in politics and showed off his sexist side, including punching the wall on either side of his new SRC president’s, Barbara Ramjan’s, head. We know that in those days he was not known to respect women. Even now Prime Minister Gillard accuses him of being a misogynist, referring to a number of sexist incidences throughout his time as Opposition Leader. And I can only wonder what kind of a formative influence St. John’s was.

Because St. John’s seems to be growing worse; growing into a breeding ground for sexism and a false sense of entitlement. And the Sydney Morning Herald naming and shaming them is apparently going too far as it’s risking the successful futures they thought guaranteed. But these are the consequences of behaving in an unbecoming manner. And these students clearly aren’t as clever as they think they are; after all, these are the people who thought it was just so funny to have someone from the SRC pose as a first year and defend the school on Lateline.

The toxic culture at that school, and the toxic students practicing it should be called out, because their actions are not okay. It is not okay to shit in someone’s dorm, to set fire to lounges, or to hospitalise, degrade, threaten and invoke fear in young women. And I’m glad that higher-ups in the Catholic Church, the Sydney University community and the NSW parliament are willing to begin the long process of reform.

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  1. Pingback: Feminist News Round-up 18.11.12 | News | Lip Magazine

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