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Yarra Valley Grammar incident highlights urgent need to end misogyny

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Two boys from Yarra Valley Grammar School have been expelled after creating a list ranking female students (Screenshot via YouTube)

A recent incident where schoolboys ranked female classmates as 'unrapeable' has reminded us of the need to tackle the misogynistic culture allowing this behaviour to thrive, writes Rosemary Sorensen.

* CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

IT'S TIME TO get back to some basics about sex and gender.

Men who were themselves abused within institutional systems that protected violence and bullying are who we need to hear from if something is to change. Many people pursing their lips in disgust at the boys of Yarra Valley Grammar, who ranked girls according to how “unrapeable” they are, are the same people who actually believe that boys should be instilled with warrior beliefs and girls will ever be judged by their looks.

Check out so-called entertainment, from film to music and advertising, with all its glamorisation of violence and objectifying of bodies. It’s weirdly hypocritical not to see how young people might get it very wrong.

There were still alpha-male stereotypes behind the revolutionary flower-power era when men grew their hair and danced in tie-dyed kaftans, but at least back then, we had useful discussions about the difference between sex and gender, between maleness and masculinity, between simplistic binaries where men are strong and emotionally limited, and women are, to use the lexicon of the lads at Yarra Valley, “unrapeable”.

The breaking down of prejudices against non-binary people also opened up the possibilities for identity (possibilities still being resisted by boofheads, as we saw this week in Cumberland Shire).

The neoliberal backlash against this fluid new world, however, has been ruthless. It seems tautological to have to note that capitalism is patriarchal and patriarchy requires the oppositional binaries of masculinity/femininity.

Now, even when hair can be long and skirts occasionally appear on male models, many men – certainly those we are told are normal role models – are terrified of stepping outside the boundaries dictated by capitalist orthodoxy.

We know rape is a violent expression of power, so why did those boys choose to describe their adolescent, messy, unachievable desires with that word? While ranking girls is cruel, but reflects back on the boys' impotence (in your dreams, would be a reasonable response to their lists), to rank girls as “unrapeable” was their attempt to take back the power through the threat of violence. That’s what needs to be addressed and it’s urgent.

Even someone who has a well-developed sense of self, who is experienced in writing with care and precision about emotions, and who has a reputation for honesty and decency, even that kind of man has trouble confronting the violent power within masculine cultures.

Martin Flanagan is a journalist who made a brilliant career out of writing about the AFL in a way that earned him the nickname “Deepness” from Kevin Sheedy. He also wrote a novel, Going Away, which touched on the experience of Catholic boarding school, but that was coming at the danger from an angle — ‘a jig, a reel, a series of stories spun in a certain spirit’.

It sounds like that was a practice match for writing about the thing that was still haunting him. And so he begins his memoir, The Empty Honour Boardwith the line, ‘I was warned against writing this’. A novelist called his intention ‘an act of insanity’. Someone else warned him‘You don’t want to go stirring up that shit again’.

“That shit” was the sexual abuse of boarders at a school in Tasmania, but it was also the honour code instilled in the boys, a perverse acceptance of bullying, violence and refusal to dob on perpetrators.

The violence! “If I knew the name of the boys who organised that walk-out,” one of the priests raged when the boarders revolted against the quality of the food they’re served, “I’d punch their teeth into the pit of their bellies”.

Flanagan doesn’t call his own encounter with a creepily tactile priest “sexual abuse” and he’s still unsure about what exactly went on at the school, concerned that his memory might not be reliable. But there was a code of masculinity that he knew was unhealthy and harmful. He doesn’t want to write a narrative of blame, but he’s also aware that the school, with its cruel and abusive cohort of priests, did damage the boys under their control, and those boys damaged each other and the girls with whom they crossed paths.

I think Flanagan wants to say “not all priests” and “not all boys” but is aware that’s not really the point. Even one priest. One boy. And everyone else perhaps seeing it and doing nothing. That’s the point.

I’m not sure why he was warned off writing the book, but it might have been that he was expecting to be attacked for his willingness to feel pity for the priests. He agrees with Geoffrey Robertson, who wrote about the Inquiry into institutional abuse, that most of the abusive priests are ‘not even paedophiles, but rather sexually maladjusted, immature and lonely individuals’.

That infuriates those who have to pick up the pieces of children broken by such “maladjusted” men, but maybe understanding how the maladjustment happens and trying to prevent it will help protect children.

Flanagan compares what happens in the masculinist system of the Catholic boarding school to what William Golding described in his novel Lord of the Flies, where boys isolated on an island lose their moral discipline and degenerate into thuggery: ‘They are innocent in the sense that they have played no part in creating the situation they are trapped in,’ he writes of those boys, ‘But it doesn’t follow that their behaviour within that situation is innocent’.

The problem here, of course, is that these are not men and boys shipwrecked on an island but supposedly trained within a system that ought to be doing everything to make sure that abusive behaviour does not develop. Instead, the system (the Church) refuses to see it and, when it does, covers it up.

This brings us to the boys (on the cusp of being young men) at the school and how on Earth they came to believe that “unrapeable” was a word to describe girls.

If Flanagan can express pity for the priests (which is only possible, it seems to me, if you believe doing so opens the way to reducing the likelihood of such men finding refuge in institutions like religious schools), he also searches for ways to understand and forgive the bullying violent boys who inflicted such pain on other boys. He meets some of these boys as men and they turn out to be likeable, to Flanagan’s relief.

He meets, too, some of the boys abused by the priests and is hugely in awe of those men who confront the past, helping others to let out and hopefully let go of the pain. And that’s where he ends what must have been a terrifically difficult book to write.

I reckon there’s more to be written about what Flanagan talks about in The Empty Honour Board, but he’s done his bit and deserves to be thanked for having the courage and skill to write about the masculinity codes that made it possible for wickedness to prosper. We now need other writers to step up and tackle a culture that convinces young men the way to deal with their swirling emotional desires is to imagine raping young women.

Some honest analysis of what masculinist ideology actually promotes is urgently required.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

*This article is also available on audio here:

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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