Opinion

What Facebook’s pro-rape group says about our culture of sexual assault

It should not come as a shock that university students in Australia 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.

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What people reveal on Facebook says a lot about them. It also says a lot about our culture. 

When news broke this fall that male students at the University of Sydney had created a “pro-rape” Facebook group, it broke the silence around the culture of sexual assault and rape that for years has been allowed to fester on that campus and at many other Australian universities. The group has been removed from Facebook, and the controversy around it has subsided. But the culture that condones all kinds of sexual misconduct against women continues to thrive on college campuses across the Western world. 

I wish I could say that the news from Sydney surprised me, but it didn’t. Sydney is my hometown, and I know several young men who joined exclusive residential colleges like St. Paul’s, a stately cluster of buildings separated from the rest of the University of Sydney campus by high walls and green lawns.

These men 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 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 a school dance, saw fit to explain to my boyfriend, in explicit detail, exactly what 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 in recent 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 Facebook group, a group that lauded and encouraged illegal and inhumane behavior?

Australia’s culture of condoning rape and protecting rapists is not unique, of course. In the past few months alone, we’ve seen multiple examples of that very same culture here in the US, from Roman Polanksi apologists to fraternity date-rape coverup attempts and even a crowd of spectators standing idly by as a 15-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 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. 

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 rush to their defense when a woman accuses them of sexual misconduct, putting her – her wardrobe, her sexual history – on trial instead. We allow them to make rape jokes or to refer to particularly grueling exams or interviews as having “raped” them. 

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.

The young men in question defended themselves by insisting that they had been using “rape” metaphorically, to describe defeating a rival team on the football field. But at Sydney University, on college campuses here, and in the broader cultures of Australia and of the United States, rape is no metaphor, no joke. It’s real, and it happens alarmingly often. We need to demand better of our young men, especially those young men who stand poised to fill positions of power and influence once they leave the forgiving bubble of the college campus. Their humanity, and women’s lives, depends on it.

Chloe Angyal is a writer from Sydney, Australia, who now lives in New York. A version of this essay originally appeared at Feministing

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