This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.
It’s been a sobering couple of weeks for colleges in Sydney, Australia. First, students at Wesley College came under fire for harassing sex workers and publishing a slut-shaming journal. Then St. Andrews College was laid out for a weekly radio broadcast that recounted hookups and personal stories, including the alleged sexual assault of a student.
As someone all too familiar with stories like these, these sorts of headlines don’t stir outrage or incredulity. More so, it’s surprise. I’m surprised that of all the depraved shit that goes down in colleges, only a handful of stories come out.
I spent 18 months at the University of Queensland’s all-male King’s College. There, flippant sexism and collective shaming was the norm, almost identical to the sad culture unearthed in Sydney. In fact, it may have been even worse.
Most Australian colleges are steeped in tradition. It makes sense they’re good at keeping secrets. If you throw a bunch of young kids from a wide array of backgrounds in the same living space and knit them together with the illusion of a shared history, they’ll adopt a collective identity.
This indoctrination starts from the very first week. For first year students living off campus, O Week is a period of joining social clubs, working out where lecture theaters are, trying to make friends, and going to parties. For guys living on campus, it’s much more brutal.
Our first week at King’s started at 4 AM. Us “freshers” were rattled awake with with blaring death metal and herded into the quad by the college executives. They all wore aviator sunglasses, and most had dyed blond hair. They taught us the college song, and they explained that our university degrees were just a formality—our true calling was being a Kingsman. You’re told that having sex with Women’s College girls is significantly stronger currency than Grace College girls, and that St. Leo’s boys (UQ’s other all-male college) are brutish scum. Basically just the enemy.
Young brains adopt these ideologies easily—especially those who have never lived in the big city. Kingsmen come from all around the state to Brisbane, bringing their parents’ money and a newfound excess of free time with them. The lucky ones even have a vague notion of what they want to study.
The freedom is dizzying. To be told what to do (drink and go to the gym), where to go (college club nights and sporting events), who to sleep with (Women’s girls), and who to hate (St. Leo’s boys) is a relief.
You even get a new name: a King’s moniker, which makes you feel like the difficulties of your old life no longer matter. It is a forced cleansing, but guys take on these identities fully and completely, even changing up their names on Facebook. I went to college with guys named “Dress-Ups,” “Jetty Jerk,” and “SWAT,” which was an acronym for “Sister With Awesome Tits.” I was “Jessie,” as in “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl.” The president of King’s had taken a particular liking to my then girlfriend.
I wasn’t immune to much of it. Here’s one example, from a pool of many. A dozen Kingsmen and I designed the “Trifecta Challenge.” It was a competition to be the first to sleep with a girl from each of UQ’s three all-female colleges. The Sunday night before my last semester at King’s, we all stood with a beer in my room and swore an oath to the “Golden Cock” (a gold rooster trophy that, along with bragging rights, would be the prize). Then we signed a document listing the rules—fourteen of them all up.
Some aimed to ensure the challenge ran smoothly (Number Seven: Sabotage on any level will not be tolerated) while others sought to make the challenge more difficult (Number Three: All sexual acts must be completed at the college of the female, not on home territory). They all had one thing in common: They illustrated the way we’d been trained to view women—as apparatus to be utilized in the development of our male friendships. They were territories to be seized in games of RISK, pieces to be taken in chess, spaces to be swiftly conquered in an affirmation of brotherhood.
Image by Ashley Goodall
I can tell you that a girl’s walk home from a boy’s room was a walk of shame, while a boy’s trip was a stroll of success. I can tell you that at St. Leo’s freshers weren’t allowed to have girlfriends because they were viewed as corruptive threats. I can tell you that at every King’s general meeting an award was given for the “best” sex story, and that in the winning tale the girl was almost always the punchline. She was the troll too ugly to fuck sober, the canvas on which the storyteller vomited, the slit, the gash, the meat. We were spoken to in this new and abrasive vocabulary. We were young and permeable, so we soon read from this hostile dictionary like it were our native tongue.
I had a decent amount of sex at college, but not much of it was any good. This was usually my fault. I had insecurities, and I had been taught to affect a public bravado I couldn’t live up to come copulation.
And yet, I always twisted the story to make women the butt of my jokes, simply because I wasn’t ready to admit weakness or vulnerability. That’s exactly why I think a lot of adolescent misogyny and sexual aggression aren’t problems, they’re symptoms. Symptoms of inflexible expectations of manhood and repressed individuality, symptoms of trying to be someone you’re not. Feelings of inadequacy easily morph into bitterness.
For some boys, the King’s identity fit like a glove. It was natural for them to aspire to the triumvirate of masculinity: sporting success, sexual conquest, and the possession of a steel liver.
But more often I saw boys for whom college didn’t fit. Boys like me: from sleepy coastal towns, with stutters, pigeon chests, and acne. Boys who were introspective, gay, or asexual. Those who didn’t particularly like drinking, or know what a coxswain was. Most of all, boys who learned quickly that in order to fit in they would need to erase themselves—and project something entirely different through alcohol.
It took more than a year for me to realize that King’s mystical reputation—that it was a sort of hedonistic Shangri-La free from responsibility—wasn’t real. For it to be real, all men would have to be born the same, and women, well, they’d have to not take up space at all. It would’ve meant going back to a crueler, harsher time.
That’s where this issue really comes from: the past. Any institution too heavily invested in the past loses sight of the present. And for colleges, this is painfully clear in their ideas of gender.
Oxford University’s last all-male college, St. Benet’s, opened its doors to women in 2015 with little fanfare or backlash. When queried about the perceived loss of tradition, the master of St. Benet’s Professor Werner Jeanrond said, “It depends on how you view tradition. Is it something that you contribute to or something that is an exhibit in a museum?”