It's Time To Stand Up To Violence On Campus

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Two weeks ago an online search for "University of Sydney" yielded the headline "Sydney University the best for student experience".

According to the Sydney Morning Herald and the National Union of Students, Camperdown’s sandstone towers were ranked number one with regard to student experience against Australia’s other tertiary institutions. Perhaps this validates the University’s own claim to "boundless possibility" for its enrollees.

The announcement was slightly jarring, however, as it was published amid the fallout from Ruth Pollard’s exposure of the University’s sexually violent college culture.

Pollard’s article had the feel of a forensic report, as though she arrived at the scene just a few hours too late. Within St Paul’s College she located victims of sexual violence and a vile message scrawled across the wall. That wall extended onto the now infamous "pro-rape" Facebook page, where several residents of the college took a sanguine approach to advertising their stance against consent. Although some have written the page off as a product of distasteful though misrepresented humour, its existence is only symptomatic of a venomous culture that is apparently endemic to the University of Sydney’s colleges.

Within an hour of Pollard’s article hitting the SMH website, debates opened up across blogs, opinion pages, and mailing lists, where myriad anecdotes suggested the damnable: for far too long, college life at the University of Sydney has been dominated by a vicious misogyny that all too often results in sexual violence.

It might seem strange, then, that I’m now writing a fortnight after the initial furore. I held off for what I think is a very good reason. Quite simply: what we are dealing with here is not an isolated incident, but a culture — and the concentrated condemnation of misogyny among college students might very well ensure the persistence of that culture.

The public attention directed at a "rape culture" within the colleges has been disengaged from any adequate response that ought to come from college wardens or the University of Sydney Senate. While there’s no denying that all parties involved have publicly condemned sexual violence, if no one is willing to put their money where their mouth is, that condemnation will result in its effective reversal.

Until serious action is taken against what looks to be a firmly entrenched culture, all attention being directed that way, no matter how negative it might be, will simply broadcast the following message: "We know about your violence but we’re too afraid to stand against you!"

The University of Sydney has been transmitting this message for as long as sexual violence has been apparent within its walls. If any proof is needed that college students have internalised the idea that this sort of behavior is tolerable, look no further than their audacious promotions. As one contemptible advertisement for a college function, chalked all over campus, stated: "$10 entry, $3 beer, $0 women, deflowering a virgin: priceless." I suggest that any student happily writing this onto university thoroughfares is no longer concerned about being judged and may very well seek to carry out his stated ambition. This mindset is the result of condemnation becoming detached from any sort of prosecution.

Equally revealing is the initial response issued by the Warden of St Paul’s College, Reverend Canon Dr Ivan Head, on 9 November 2009. In the missive, which was published on both Fairfax and News Ltd websites, Head holds "all forms of sexual assault, rape or any proven incitement to rape to be abhorrent," but fails to cite any policy or procedures that have been set in place to ensure the eradication of a misogynistic and violent culture. And although college residents "are not children", Head and his staff remain "150 per cent committed to the well being of young men and women" and "at times work night and day".

As Head’s defence picks up steam, statistical impossibility and impracticable workloads plummet into hyperbole. In an echo of the College advertising material, he describes St Paul’s as "one of the most exciting and stimulating places to live, brilliantly in the heart of the University, fully engaged with every aspect of student life, punching above its weight", and so on. Stimulating indeed, if Head’s climactic elation is anything to go by.

This sort of self-congratulatory and spurious rhetoric is precisely why I had a problem with the initial agitations triggered by Pollard’s article. Many of the critical pieces levelled at St Paul’s College seemed all too willing to conflate fact with rumour, while others betrayed a reflexive prejudice against all individuals associated with colleges. This only plays into the useless, complacent rhetoric of those college officials who refuse to see this violence as endemic.

There were, of course, some great pieces that did advocate real change. As a lot of their perceived urgency now seems lost to a moment only two weeks gone, I’d like to reiterate what is perhaps the most radical yet realistic demand that was pushed. In an opinion piece for The Punch, Carina Garland demanded that the University of Sydney provide the intercollegiate community with comprehensive strategies for dealing with complaints of harassment or sexual violence. The implementation of such policy would not only provide a means to recourse for victims but, perhaps more significantly, it would send out the message that this sort of behaviour will no longer be tolerated.

Garland’s is a real suggestion that could be a critical step in solving a serious problem. Let’s not lose that to the excitement and panic of a fortnight ago because, if we do, then the cause for alarm will persist.

In addition to Head’s personally authored response, two media statements have been published to the St Paul’s website.

The first, dated 11 November, simply condemns "anything that detracts from the dignity of women" and, I suggest, this document merely echoes the pyrrhic outrage exhibited elsewhere.

In a more substantial statement issued on 17 November, five steps were outlined with which the College will attempt to address sexual violence as a broader cultural issue.

However, four of these five steps simply read as the token gestures of a clever PR campaign and so they fall within that problematic space of nominal address.

Of these, two reiterate the idea that relations with women "on and off campus are to be guided at all times by dignity and respect". A laudable position, certainly, but this only repeats what was said and with little effect elsewhere. It does not require double emphasis. Another step claims that this twice-made point will soon be emphasised to incoming residents entering the College in 2010. Having effectively made that point thrice over, the final step disengages from sexual violence on campus altogether and promises College sponsorship of the White Ribbon campaign.

Only one of these five steps comes close to looking like a serious response. Listed second, it reads that the College is "reviewing its policies, procedures and educational materials" in attempt to "mirror best practice and be appropriate to contemporary standards".

Best intentions aside, however, such equivocation fails to engage, at the level of policy, with the alleged persistence of a sexually violent culture within the College. Rather, the intent seems to be on calibrating pre-existent and so evidently inadequate policy against some vague and generalised standard while ignoring the problem at hand. This does not address a sexually violent culture and thus, as a response, the statement is inadequate.

Adequate policy would be intercollegiate and created in conjunction with the University of Sydney. Such policy would provide comprehensive strategies for dealing with complaints of harassment or sexual violence and, decisively, it would also press down on the conditions that give rise to these phenomena.

Examples of similar policy have already been put into practice at the University of Melbourne and so it is perhaps from Melbourne that Sydney should take note.

If the University of Sydney is hoping for the controversy to die away then now is the time to repeat the demand for a formal policy focussed on eradicating sexual violence from its college culture. If the Warden of St Paul’s College does not go significantly further than his stated intentions, then it falls upon the rest of the community to lobby the University Senate to make severe and severely overdue impositions. If these impositions are not made, all the energy which built to a head only two weeks ago will only contribute to sustaining a misogynist culture and, by extension, endemic sexual violence.

If the University of Sydney really is Australia’s best then let’s see its leaders earn that title on behalf of their students.

This article has been edited since it was published.

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