Virtual realities: Sydney University’s “pro-rape” Facebook group

Last week in my hometown of Sydney, Australia, news broke that members of an all-male residential college at the University of Sydney had created a “pro-rape” group on Facebook. Creators of the group, which was called “Define Statutory,” described it as “anti-consent,” and “pro-rape.” In addition to members displaying their group membership on their personal profiles, the group and its membership list was publicly available to anyone with access to Facebook, suggesting that the men in question were perfectly comfortable being identified as being in favour of sexual violence.
I wish I could say that the news from Sydney surprised me, but it didn’t. When I graduated from high school in Sydney five years ago, many of my fellow graduates matriculated at the University of Sydney and some of them joined women’s or co-educational residential colleges. Many of our male friends, including those from our brother schools, joined St. Paul’s, the college in question in the Facebook scandal, or all-male colleges like it. The residential colleges are a small and tight-knit subculture on a campus where most students commute; with the exception of students from the country, Australians rarely move away from home to go to university. While some who live in the residential colleges are from out of town, there a good number of students who live within a commutable distance from campus, but choose to join exclusive colleges like St. Paul’s, an old and stately cluster of buildings separated from the rest of campus by high walls and green lawns.
The young men I knew who ended up at St. Paul’s and at colleges like it had graduated from Sydney’s best and most expensive private boys’ high schools. In my interactions with them – I confess I dated one or two – I was quite appalled by what I saw: a culture in which sexism, racism and homophobia were rampant, and where class privilege and an almost laughable sense of male superiority combined to make women like me feel deeply uncomfortable. On their own, most of these young men were lovely. When they got together, something truly awful was created.


En masse, the way these young men talked about women, about women’s bodies, and about sex, could have been lifted from Tom Wolfe’s highly unflattering depiction of fraternity brothers in I Am Charlotte Simmons. On one occasion, one of my boyfriend’s friends, drunk on the booze he had smuggled into the senior prom, saw fit to explain to my boyfriend, in explicit detail, exactly what it was that he liked about my breasts – as I sat opposite him, speechless with disbelief and discomfort.
So when I heard that members of St. Paul’s college had created a “pro-rape” Facebook group, my initial reaction wasn’t surprise or shock, but sadness. I was saddened by just how little shock I felt.
In Australia, we’ve become accustomed to hearing about young privileged men behaving badly. A seemingly never-ending stream of alleged sexual assaults by Rugby League players over the last several years – and the tendency for coaches and fan communities to defend those players to the hilt – has apparently set a powerful precedent: when you’re young, rich and important, there’s very little you won’t get away with. How else to explain the hubris with which these young men displayed their membership in this group, a group that lauded and encouraged illegal and inhumane behaviour? How else to explain the Facebook status updates of some members of the group after the news of its existence broke: “Paul’s was raped by [The Sydney Morning Herald]“?
Australia’s culture of condoning rape and protecting rapists is not unique, of course. In the past month alone, we’ve seen multiple examples of that very same culture here in the US, from Polanksi apologists to fraternity date-rape cover-up attempts and even a crowd of spectators standing idly by as a fifteen-year-old girl was gang raped at a homecoming dance. In both countries, we’ve become accustomed to hearing about rape almost on a daily basis, and new findings suggest that violence against women is increasingly being offered up as a form of entertainment.
The sad truth of the matter is that I wasn’t that shocked by what happened at St. Paul’s because it conformed to my expectations of what happens when young privileged men get together. As a young woman raised in Australia and educated in the USA, experience has taught me to expect just this sort of behaviour from fraternities, athletic teams and other privileged or elite all-male groups. The ugly reality is that neither Australian nor American culture holds its young men to a high enough standard. When things like this happen, we wave their actions aside with a shake of the head and a resigned sigh of “boys will be boys.” We allow them to make rape jokes or to refer to particularly grueling exams or interviews as having “raped” them. We rush to their defense when a woman accuses them of sexual misconduct, putting her – her wardrobe, her sexual history – on trial instead.
It should not come as a shock that the men of St. Paul’s thought they could get away with creating a Facebook group that explicitly condoned rape. After all, they live in a culture that, implicitly, does the very same thing.

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13 Comments

  1. Toongrrl
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Here’s what I learned from my Student Dictionary: “Rape” comes from the latin “Rapere” which means “to steal or to seize”. I will let that sit for a while

  2. Silva
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    There should be a law that punishes people for making apology to crimes, for inciting others to commit crimes.
    Freedom of speech should not be an absolute principle. It should be limited by others rights, such as safety.
    I know at least one country where calling people to commit a crime, or talking about a crime (as defined by the law) in a way that makes it sound acceptable, is a crime in itself, punished by years in prison.

  3. PizzaLover
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I can definitely relate. I attended a private “college preparatory day school” in upstate NY for high school. My experiences with the males in the class were much like yours- they openly discussed my body and those of other females at the school, and they banded together and celebrated their privileges- whiteness and wealthy backgrounds.
    Before high school I never realized I was treated any differently because I am female, maybe I wasn’t. However, when high school came along I started to define myself in the same way as those around me- based on my femininity, looks, and being a desirable female. In economics class, my male groupmates discounted what I had to say. In turn, I too started to defer to their undeserved authority because of how they asserted themselves. I became fixated on my clothes and my appearance and what my male classmates thought of them (and I’m not even straight!).
    Looking back, it was a very negative experience that took years to understand and overcome. The school itself offered great academic and artistic classes but I was too preoccupied by trying to impress others to take full advantage of my opportunity. I hope other young women are not as susceptible to these social pressures as I was. Parents and society in general need to be aware of these dynamics and teach their children to respect people as individuals.

  4. zes
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I went to an all girls school and had none of those feelings. So when I came across it in the adult world I was too firmly entrenched in my own confidence to be dislodged. I think this is why single sex education is so good for girls.
    However the boys at the schools we danced with were smug privileged knobs of the type described in the OP. I am not sure how to get around that. Perhaps they need a better syllabus, more helping people, that sort of thing.

  5. Aydan
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I have unfortunately experienced something similar, though not nearly so “bad,” at my university.
    Here’s an article on the USydney situation that a friend sent me: http://www.smh.com.au/national/harsh-lessons-at-the-university-of-hard-knocks-20091108-i3kd.html

  6. me and not you
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I did not have those experiences in high school. I went to private all-girls catholic school in Texas (with a boy’s school across the street, some classes were shared). Maybe it was different, as we were known for being feminist (when the school tried to change the “father, son, holy spirit” to the gender neutral “creator, savior, sanctifior” the bishop sent a letter telling us to stop, among other things). Maybe the boys behaved differently when they were in their classes by themselves. Maybe my friends were just particularly good, but I personally at least, was never treated like that. If that had happened, it would have been very bad indeed (based on the extremely negative reaction to some post 9/11 racism–the student body as a whole condemned the girls who made the racist comment, and I believe that there was some kind of punishment from the school).
    Not to say that there wasn’t sexism, or racism, or homophobia (o the homophobia), because there WAS. But I am constantly shocked by what other young women (had to) put up with.

  7. Chad
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    The fact that this Facebook group was started by a group of young privileged men makes this story especially disgusting, but I don’t think the fact of privilege is the dynamic they share with the men and boys who watched the gang rape in Richmond (who have few privileges to speak of) or the fraternity men in Arizona (who probably have some, but not all of the same levels of privilege). I think the common problem is the collusion of men and boys in groups, and the way that groups of men and boys can share in a common sense of power by collectively expressing dominance over women, while also reinforcing their egos as members of a powerful group.
    One of the reader comments in the Sydney Morning Herald story really brought this home for me:
    All “pretty level guys”, “chaps even”. Good on you Awty. Wesley boys , first and last. “Thanks for calling us elite”. Can’t help yourself darling.
    No sense of shared accountability, no expression of shared shame. The level of gender-transformative work that needs to be done to change the dynamics of men supporting each other in harming women is so deep it is hard to know where to start.

  8. arielmorgan
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I am sort of perplexed by this article/post/discussion… Growing up in the US, I’ve never visited Aussie-land (though I have a limited collection of internet buds from over there) so I really have no touchstone or frame of reference for what the “collective consciousness” of popular culture in Australia is, or how it compares to American culture…
    But even I find the idea of a facebook group tat describes itself as “pro-rape” and “anti-consent” to be shocking and viscerally disturbing.
    I have to wonder if there is some level of euphamism in act in the idea of this group, if only because my mind simply refuses to wrap itself around the idea of being pro-rape. I mean, I get the concept of consentual non-consent, of rape/ravishment fantasies, and consentual sadism (seeing as how they’re part of my own mental sexual landscape)… but the key part of that is the word “consentual,” remove it, and the idea of intentionally producing these scenerios becomes truly perplexing (if not terrifying.)
    And I really, really find myself skeptical about the OP’s description that Australian culture as a whole is like this… I feel that the secluded and protective aspects of all-male sub-cultures like fraternities contributes to the feeling of relative “safety” within said groups to hold and/or express mentalities that are not really indicative of either the larger native culture, or the individuals themselves. …That is to say, fraternity culture is not popular culture, and to take the view that they are one and the same, is at the very least a narrow and limited view point.

  9. dame_elphaba
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    “Freedom of speech should not be an absolute principle…”
    Agreed– doesn’t the American constitution say that we are allowed the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition, as long as these actions do NOT infringe on others’ rights? And in this case, the right to exist in a safe world without violence and harassment? Without the threat of rape?

  10. jellyleelips
    Posted November 18, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Fuck. Why is violence against women such a huge fucking joke to people? If a group of women got together and made a facebook group celebrating the castration of all males, people would be in an uproar. Or not, because a lot of privileged men don’t take anything women say or do seriously. God how much I resent being able to be reduced to my body/appearance by asshole dudes. Luckily I’m developing a thick skin and a bad attitude to compensate.

  11. alixana
    Posted November 18, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Well, no. The US Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
    A very strict constructionist (like Scalia) would argue that there can’t be any limitations to free speech at all. But the US Supreme Court over the years has decided that, despite the absolute wording of the first amendment, there are appropriate limitations, including ones involving safety.

  12. Lorelei
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    i live upstate and if it’s any of the ones i’m thinking of, it’s so funny because most of them try to come off as ~*so progressive*~.

  13. paper tiger
    Posted November 23, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    “If a group of women got together and made a facebook group celebrating the castration of all males, people would be in an uproar.”
    Actually, there is one group like that…
    Assholes exist in all gender groups. :/

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