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.