When a petition recently went viral, documenting over 3,000 cases of sexual assault by boys at Sydney private schools, I was saddened and sickened – but not surprised – to find a testimonial from a female student at my former high school. I was also struck – but not surprised – by the then-16-year-old girl saying that she was ashamed to tell anyone about her sexual assault.
I understood her shame. It was a feeling I learned through the 13 years I spent at a private girls’ school in Sydney, run by an ultra-conservative faction of the Catholic church.
Perhaps, like me, the student was first introduced to the concept of consent with the story of St Maria Goretti. When we were in fifth grade, a teacher told us about an 11-year-old Italian girl whose male neighbour attempted to rape her. It was unclear what the word rape meant, only that it was obviously sinful for everyone involved.
The virtuous child begged her would-be rapist to kill her instead so that she would remain pure. This meant she could go straight to heaven instead of hell, the teacher said. He stabbed her to death, and now St Maria has the dubious honour of being the church’s youngest virgin martyr.
Maybe the student was also given the cautionary tale about a teenage couple who participated in the act of fornication – another word I didn’t know. Driving home from wherever this disgusting encounter took place, they had a horrific car accident. The girl was killed in a particularly gory manner, described to us in a level of detail I haven’t forgotten over two decades later.
But the punchline was when police arrived on the scene and the boy sobbed: “I drove her to her death, but I flung her into hell.” This was because she didn’t have time to repent for fornicating, our teacher explained matter-of-factly.
I was the same age as young St Maria Goretti when I heard these “true” stories in class. With my murky understanding of sex and rape, the two became indistinguishable: both were mortal sins with eternal damnation as a punishment. Consent was inconsequential – and never mentioned.
As pre-teens, we were each given a prayer card with the image of this little girl saint, so that we could beg her for the same strength to choose death over impurity.
By the time we reached high school, our sex education consisted entirely of bullying us into being terrified of losing our virginity. We were lectured on how the pill would give us cancer and told that the only proven form of contraception was abstinence. “Just say no!” If our no was ignored? It meant we weren’t saying it clearly enough.
We watched videos called Sex Has a Price Tag and Sex Still Has a Price Tag. In them, we saw American evangelist Pam Stenzel travel around schools to scream at teenage audiences that girls who have sex with more than one man are like sticky tape who lose their stick.
I wonder if the sexual assault survivor from my school was shown these videos too – if, like me, she learned from a young age that her intrinsic worth as a woman and a human being was no greater than her purity.
In the absence of actual contact with boys, we learned plenty about them through a baffling array of euphemisms: men were like dogs, and if you put the food in front of them they had to eat it; they were wild stallions and women bravely held the reins; they were cars and if you revved up their engines but left them stuck in neutral, then they would explode. It was up to women, always women, to keep their foot firmly on the brakes.
After all, men’s brains were smaller than women’s so they couldn’t be held responsible. That’s why they always did stupid things without thinking, like going abseiling with no harnesses.
And sexually assaulting teenage girls.
Although we didn’t know any men, we were already burdened with the task of controlling their thoughts and actions. My first failure occurred at the age of 13, when I received a Saturday detention for “flirting with a camp instructor” (a 30-year-old man) because I was wearing shorts above my knees and sitting with my legs slightly apart.
The principal brought me into her office – one of many similar visits – and raged “Where’s the fidelity?” I had already been unfaithful to my future husband by showing another man my adolescent knees.
Following my infidelity, our outdoor camps were quickly replaced by prayer retreats so there wouldn’t be any exposure to male instructors. But there were still priests – and we were made to cover our shoulders and forearms so they couldn’t catch sight of our bare flesh. “A priest is still a man,” we were regularly reminded.
One student even had a jumper forcibly placed on her before the teacher would take her to hospital after she fell and broke her collarbone. The girl’s pain was secondary to the imagined horror of a doctor having impure thoughts while performing his job.
“Impure thoughts are also a sin,” we were told. And we understood that a man’s thought was our sin.
By 16, our bodies were becoming problems that needed to be managed, as they filled out in the places most likely to tempt men.
Our teachers, many of whom belonged to this religious sect and were lifelong celibates, surveilled and policed how we walked and talked and dressed. We had etiquette classes to teach us the correct way to sit and stand and to show us how to wear a white blouse without the outline of our bra being visible. It was the teachers’ job to make sure we never let our guard down for a moment in case we lured men into sin.
That’s what rape was. It wasn’t a crime, a violation, or an abuse of power. There was only sin, for which women were not just equally guilty, they were to blame.
Fifteen years after my 2001 graduation from the private girls’ school I got very drunk with a male friend I hadn’t seen for a while. I woke up the next morning to find him in my bed, along with scant memories of him on top of me the night before, in between blackouts. He’d bought us four bottles of wine.
I thought the feeling of violation would be the worst part. But then came the shame.
I was deeply ashamed of this encounter because shame was burned into my sexual identity and sense of self-worth while I was still in the fragile process of forming them. I had been told I was bad so many times throughout my childhood and adolescence that I truly believed it.
I was ashamed because, like every girl in our school, I knew full well that if you so much as touched alcohol, you were asking for it. “Just say no!” didn’t work if you were incapable of saying anything at all; then you’d brought it on yourself.
I was ashamed because if you put yourself alone and intoxicated in a room with a man, then it was only natural that he would have expectations. You can’t give the dog the bone and then snatch it away, they told us at school.
And I was ashamed because I forgot for one evening to hold tight to the stallion’s reins exactly the way I was trained to. There was no question in my mind whose fault it was. He was supposed to be my friend – but I was the one who’d led him on.
I was 32 when this happened, not 16. But all those years in between were not enough to undo the damage inflicted by my private school education. We didn’t learn about alcohol and consent, because we didn’t learn about consent at all. I never heard the word uttered once in 13 years – and I’m sure the boys at our brother school didn’t either.
At that same private school in Sydney’s suburbs, and others like it, testimonial after testimonial after testimonial makes it clear that little girls are still learning they are to blame for their sexual assaults. I wonder how many others don’t even realise that what happened to them wasn’t a “sin” or a “poor choice”.
And without proper consent education for both boys and girls, I fear for another generation of young women who will have to live with shame their entire lives.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.