Recent reports of scandalous college initiations and abuse at St John’s College of University of Sydney didn’t surprise me. The systemic, abusive behaviour that constitutes college life there does not seem to have changed in the 15 years since I lived at Women’s College, another University of Sydney institution that shared social events and culture with the "Johnsmen".
I completed my HSC at Mudgee High, and desperate to get out of rural Australia, moved in to Women’s College immediately. I loved the rhetoric found on Women’s College’s marketing material. It was for women interested in intellectual pursuits! Who liked sport! Who believed in equality! It read very well on paper. They offered me a scholarship to help pay for my fees; there was no way I could turn down such an opportunity.
My parents drove me down with our van packed with books and clothes and a small array of other personal belongings. We were handed a stack of pamphlets to read over and I was to meet everyone at the welcoming ceremony that night. Within this stack of papers was the college song book — which my Mum read while I unpacked. Somewhat judiciously, and perhaps not wanting to bias my experience, she made no comment on it before leaving.
I was so excited to start this city life, where I had my own space, and was going to learn everything about environmental science, while living in the beautiful grounds of the University.
The slow unpicking of these hopes began that first night, the official welcome night for new Women’s College members, known as "freshers". All freshers sat on the common room floorboards and the older students ran a quiz on college life that was a glimpse into a closed world full of bizarre rites.
"What did the P atop a W signify and which college boys write it around the University?" They asked.
The answer? "The phantom arsehole sign." I still don’t know what a phantom arsehole actually is, and I can’t remember which boys from which college used it as their signifier, but it baffles me whenever I see it on the pavement at the university at which I now work.
After the quiz, we sung the college song. High society we extol thee was the chorus, punctuated by a punch in the air, not unlike a Nazi salute. I looked around the room at the young women raising their voices in song and caught sight of one other set of bewildered eyes. She and I became firm friends and supported each other through the disturbing experiences that would ensue over that year.
During orientation week, it became apparent how college life differs from the the broader university culture. The colleges’ insularity feeds their strange practices, such as The Bone Room — a place at Paul’s College where individual Women’s freshers were, and possibly still are, invited to participate in whatever activities the group of young men therein determine. The invitation to participate was a badge of honour for my co-freshers, one I happily never got to wear. Men and women alike seemed to participate in the demeaning of women.
Various other rituals emerged: a group of college males would encircle a female and chant "Yes means yes and no means more!" during social events; college hallways were lined with tarpaulins taped to sideboards to cope with the vomit coming from binge drinking during big dances; incursions into female colleges by young men were huge achievements, especially if naked.
One such incursion happened one evening when I had decided to not participate in a college formal event. I was fixing a snack of yoghurt and apple in the kitchenette at the end of the hallway when a trio of naked men appeared in silhouette at the other end of the hall. They ran towards me, calling out to each other, asking why I was there and who I was. It was impossible to make it back in to my college room as it would mean running towards the wall of naked man-flesh, and so I dashed to the bathroom instead. I hid in a shower cubicle holding my feet off the ground so they wouldn’t discover me. The three naked men ran around and around the bathroom until they grew tired of their pursuit and left.
After 10 minutes or so I felt it might be safe to emerge again and ran in to my room, locking the door and checking it twice to be sure it was secure.
The elitist attitudes that inform college life at the University of Sydney found expression on a near daily basis while I lived at Women’s. People would attest to how the Austudy money their parents managed to wrangle for them made for really good play money — it was was used for disposable income. Their parents paid the fees for college and uni, while the government paid for their drinking.
I was lucky though: having a boyfriend outside of the college space and avoiding big events meant I was able to avoid the worse elements of college culture. I drank at Manning Bar on campus — $3.50 wine carafes went a long way — and in Newtown, where I became a happy hour specialist. I wasted a lot of time drinking too, but I couldn’t relate to the narrow mindedness and rituals that dominated the space I lived in.
I hope something can be done to make sure other young men and women aren’t forced to experience the horrible culture that still seem to dominate college life at the University of Sydney. Addressing institutionalised sexist and elitist attitudes may be one way to do so.
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