Ritual humiliations, frequent assaults: The 'endemic' and 'damaging' initiations at Australia's top unis

A general view of part of the campus at Sydney University. The university’s colleges are mentioned extensively in the report on campus behaviour. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

  • “The Red Zone” report produced by End Rape on Campus Australia documents extensive ritual humiliation and hazing of new students at Australian universities.
  • Orientation weeks, or O-weeks, when first year students first arrive, is “the most dangerous week to be a female college student on campus”, the report says.

Sexual assault at Australian university campuses peaks during orientation week when first year freshers become the targets of ritual humiliation and hazing by older students, according to an investigation.

About 12% of all attempted and completed sexual assaults occurred during that single seven days, known as O Week, according to a study at the University of Sydney last year by former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

“In relation to rape and sexual assault, this makes O Week the most dangerous week to be a female college student on campus,” says a new study, The Red Zone Report, which gathered data data on residential colleges and halls from 12 universities, including all Group of 8 universities, considered the most prestigious.

Police records over the last five years detail 153 rapes and sexual assaults officially reported at universities in New South Wales, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria.

The latest investigation, The Red Zone Report, was produced by End Rape on Campus Australia, an organisation working to end sexual violence at universities and residential college. It documents rampant misogyny, bullying and the alcohol-fueled ritual humiliation and hazing of new students at residential colleges.

“It is important to note that very few survivors report their experiences of sexual assault to either police or their university,” says the report.

The 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey found that that four out of five female victims did not report being assaulted.

The Red Zone Report reveals various “traditions” at residential colleges at the University of Sydney. Most of them centre around the grooming of first year freshers.

  • Fresher fishing: Older students sexually targeting fresher students. Reports included that in 2017 the older students at St John’s College collectively Facebook stalk the incoming Fresher students, prior to O-Week to give them Fresher names and assess their relative attractiveness.
  • Bait Cruise: An O-Week tradition at Wesley college known as the bait cruise. A senior male student invites a fresher girl as their “bait” for the night. The fresher boys will also be chosen by a second or third year female student. The annual cruise was last run in 2017.
  • Fresher Queen: Fresher women on their first night at one of the colleges have been made to kneel in a line, blindfolded, while drunk third year male students select the hottest 20 fresher women to much applause. The hottest fresher woman is then labelled the Fresher Queen.
  • Fresher Five: Senior male students at St John’s College vote for the five hottest fresher girls. In a closed Facebook group in 2015, a male student posts: “Lads, gents and lords, fellas, khunts and boarz. JUDGEMENT DAY IS NIGH. We’ve bided our time long enough…. It’s time to deliberate on fresher five. With 60 [fresher women] to consider, there’s plenty of fish in the sea, but someone’s got to sort the salmon from the carp.” The name of the Facebook group was Prime cuts and minute steaks.
  • Bone Room: St Paul’s College reportedly hosted “drug and alcohol fuelled sex parties”. Senior students invite what they consider only the most attractive fresher women from Women’s College as dates. According to the report, “Each woman is instructed to dress in a specific fancy dress theme, such as Playboy bunnies, togas, or school girl. The floor of the Rogers Room — where the parties are reportedly held — is covered in mattresses.” St Paul’s College denied the existence of Bone Room parties.

Honi Soit, the Sydney University student newspaper, made reference to the “bone room” in 1990:

Women’s College residents live very much in the shadow of our brother colleges… Our importance is proportional to the number of invitations we receive to formals, lunches and ‘bone room’ sporting dinners. We cannot visit male colleges on our own without seriously damaging our reputations. And yet we suffer drunken men wandering our corridors late at night pounding upon our doors… We passive women have tolerated the ‘mole call’ on the grounds that it is a tradition when it is an extremely obvious and intimidating example of sexual harassment. (Emphasis added)

The University of Sydney said: “The University will continue to work with student and advocacy groups to do all it can to make its campuses safe and welcoming for all students.”

For Orientation Week, identified as a time of risk for vulnerable students, all 21,000 commencing students will be required to undertake Consent Matters online training.

The vomit bin

In the The Red Zone Report, one student at St Andrew’s described an O-Week activity:

“Two bins were placed in the centre of a circle of about 20 fresher students. One bin contained either mixed drinks or ‘Paradise punch’ (an alcoholic mix of pineapple juice, vodka and cask wine which was ‘for the girls’). The other is for vomiting. We had to learn the songs and when we made mistakes we had to skol. It went on for hours and people would get so drunk they had to spew in the spew bucket. Some people were yelled at or had their keys taken off them. I began hiding my key above the ledge on my door so it couldn’t be taken off me.”

One of the songs include the lines: “Those magnificent men from St. Andrew’s are here, Rooting the women and drinking the beer … “

And these:

Wish all the ladies,
Were fish in the sea,
And I was a minnow,
So they could eat me.

The Red Zone Report says the risk of non-compliance with these activities is significant. “Refusing to take part may result in taunting or social ostracism,” says the report.

Staying at the colleges costs between $584 and $831 a week including meals for 39 weeks a year. St Andrew’s College is $784 a week and the Women’s College $665.

Many of the colleges attract students who went to prestigious Sydney private schools. For example, St Paul’s College has high numbers of students who attended Trinity Grammar, The Kings School, St Joseph’s College and Cranbrook.

The report recommends a national task force be established to investigate sexual violence at Australian residential colleges.

Universities, which generally say they don’t have direct control of colleges, should also improve their oversight of student residences, the report says.

Schools also should “review their promotion” to students of colleges with high rates of sexual violence, and state governments need to legislate to criminalise hazing.

“Hazing of new students is endemic in residential colleges in Australia,” says the report. “Even when serving the intended consequences, to humiliate new entrants and place them at the bottom of a social hierarchy, it is a damaging process.”

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