The Bone Room

Natalie Buckett and Victoria Zerbst investigate old traditions, Facebook tirades, and the point at which privilege becomes poisonous. 

It was Sunday night at the Women's College, in the hungover conclusion of O Week 2014. Amongst the expected kaleidoscope of decadence, sexual deviance and lots (and lots) of drinking, something was different. Whispers flitted between bedrooms, snippets of information carried across corridors: freshman girls had reportedly been invited to a secret room by a group of seniors from neighbouring St Paul’s college, selected on the basis of their attractiveness.

They called it the Bone Room.

Up until that point, we, as Women’s freshers, had bonded over our mild discomfort at college life: the Paul’s boys chanting at us, the suggestion that half of us would meet our husbands next door. We helped each other laugh it off; this was supposed to be the greatest time of our lives.

But this sandstone mythology made things feel different.

How could something so blatantly sexist be celebrated?

They chose her? Really?

Jealousy mingled with outrage, and we stared at the spectacle of college, sickened yet entranced. 

Almost two years later, we are still trying to understand the Bone Room.

The Bone Room’s etymology is easy. The name reportedly comes from the history of the room in which it is held: the Rogers Room, within Paul’s. The Paul’s residents we spoke to said the room used to be used to store bones for the medical students, making the innuendo element for a party venue too good to pass up.

Defining what a Bone Room looks like in 2016 is more difficult.

For starters, there are multiple "Bone Rooms". The name is used to describe a particular type of party held after college victories, ranging from rugby to debating.

The Paul’s boys secretly invite women to the party, one woman for each man. They have normally never met. The women are instructed to wear fancy dress, and their date for the evening arrives in a matching costume.

“There is no other way to describe how [the invitations] are decided, because they are based on looks,” a former Women’s resident told us.

As we spoke to college residents, it became apparent the O Week Bone Room we remembered from our freshman year was the tradition at its most secretive and insidious. Although the Bone Rooms that followed intercol sports events seemed similar, we spoke to some residents who attended debating or drama bone rooms, and casually invited friends with no reference to their perceived attractiveness.

Attendees are wined and dined upstairs at Thai La-Ong, before being led to the Rogers Room. Some women described the room as full of mattresses. From the descriptions given by past attendees, the Bone Room appears like less of a party, and more of a ritualised drinking event.

“Like, it’s founded on alcohol; that’s the predicating factor,” a Paul’s resident told us.

At events like college O Week, when students are first exploring an environment that essentially becomes their home, women are disproportionately expected to make an impression.

A former Paul’s resident admitted, “If you’re an 18, 19-year-old girl and this institution of men deigns to recognise you and invite you to this secret event that you literally don’t know anything about... saying no to that is impossible.”

Some women felt this sense of exclusivity might compel attendees to immediately and indiscriminately accept invitations. They discussed the “seedy side to it... of 'getting chosen’”. This sense of exclusivity caused those “left over” to question the legitimacy of the guest list, rather than questioning the legitimacy of the event itself.

Perhaps most concerning, complex power dynamics can, in the words of one female attendee, “create a weird expectation”. She added that there’s “obviously sexual connotations to the whole thing”.

A Paul’s resident assured us the men are “in charge of making sure that [their dates] are okay and get home safely”. The issue with this prescribed couple format, though, is that often the women and men are total strangers. At the O Week Bone Room, this pressure is compounded by the fact that the girls have only arrived on campus a week before.

Many of the people we met at college who previously decried the Bone Room had changed their minds by the time we contacted them for this story. They said it was just another party, and if you weren’t ready to get that “messy”, you should just opt out. One attendee said although she ended her night “running naked through a fucking hallway”, she didn’t find it scarring, advising that if an attendee was to feel upset by something, they would probably look back on it with nostalgia.

We expected our friends at college to be just as critical as when they had first heard about the Bone Room. But it seemed they thought the moment you started to question these traditions, was the moment you stopped belonging.

As we disengaged with college and moved into sharehouses nearby, our friends settled in, socialising and befriending the same boys who ran these events.

As our investigation continued, it felt like the more people we spoke to, the less information we found. The students who first volunteered their personal experiences as public information were now suddenly shy to speak out.

Some interviews became strained, or awkward. The contributions of good, reliable sources became evasive. The Bone Room was being phased out, they told us. The Student Club had reportedly suspended multiple events last year, and even if it wasn't, was it really that different from any other night of alcohol-fuelled college debauchery?

Delving deeper, it became clear women in particular did not want to discuss the event.

For some it was a public image disaster they didn’t want to be tarred by. They were concerned that their compliance and involvement in the Bone Room would reflect badly on themselves and the college. Others were concerned the dramatic connotations of the Bone Room meant it was just another anti-college Honi article.

For most, though, it was something more than that. What they wanted to talk about, and express, couldn’t be simplified or strawmanned as one event.

It was only when we broadened the scope of the interviews, that the men and women we were speaking to began to open up. We heard stories of harassment, of impenetrable old boys’ networks, of internalised misogyny and shocking, raw experiences of sexual assault. The stories were stark, aching and each time, individual. Yet, they shared too many similarities for comfort.

Most instances of intercollegiate bullying and harassment occurred, in some part, online. They usually targeted a female’s sexuality. The perpetrators appeared careless, and remorseless.

One college resident’s friends allegedly photoshopped the faces of girls he had slept with onto an existing group photo to document his year’s hook-ups. Another posted a "to do" list of females, ranking them one to five on Facebook. The women involved were tagged; one had a tick placed against her name.

Anecdotes of experiencing cruel behaviour, both casual and calculated, flew out of the mouths of women, often breezily.

In late 2015, one Paul’s resident was allegedly hacked on Facebook to publish a post singling out the incoming Women’s College house committee, naming Paul’s residents they had been romantically connected with in titles such as “Honorary Pleasurer” (Honorary Treasurer), “Senior Serpent” (Senior Student) and “In-her-hole Rep” (Intercol Rep).

Women’s College residents called out the behaviour, leaving the Paul’s resident no other option than to apologise. However, a leaked screenshot of an internal Paul’s Facebook group revealed college residents discussing the apology. They laughed at it, all the while mocking the Women’s College feminist organisation, Femco. Comments ranged from the sarcastic “#menco”, to “the senior serpent I voted for never would have reneged” and, simply: “chicks suck”.

"If you're an 18, 19-year-old girl and this institution of men deigns to recognise you and invite you to this secret event... saying no to that is impossible."

We realised women didn’t want to talk about the Bone Room because it was not an isolated event we could critique, and instead was, as one Women’s College resident told us, “emblematic of a deeper problem”.

The women we spoke to believed the men next door often didn’t bother to consider their feelings, or if they did, maybe just didn’t care about them.

Online bullying where women are tagged in cruel or sexualised Facebook posts had broadcasted untrue or sensitive information to their entire social network, often including employers and family members. Perpetrators defend their actions as “frapes” or “jokes”, pushing the accountability onto one another and ultimately escaping it individually.

The harassment is personal, and physical too. A resident of college told Honi of being bullied by her friends after she stood up against an unwanted sexual encounter. The intimidating social environment of the dining hall meant that she simply “didn’t eat” because she was “too scared and uncomfortable to eat with others”.

Interestingly, most women we spoke to stressed that The Women’s College provided both thorough and approachable resolution processes for bullying, and would probably “take complaints that come to them quite seriously”.

The more overarching issue however, seemed to be that any complaints rarely left the women’s bedrooms.

At the heart of this intercollegiate dynamic is a historical power imbalance.

Women's College residents feel indebted to Paul’s men due to the events and opportunities they feel are provided for them. With a bar on site, Women’s residents told us they felt Paul’s controls the area’s "social hub". Women’s College facilities, whilst still exorbitantly privileged, boast no personal bar, no sandstone quad, and considerably fewer alumnae donations than Paul's. 

Some thought this resource disparity was the out- come of archaic views about "how women ought to behave". After all, why would an all-female college need a bar? Others felt Women’s simply couldn’t compete financially with the Old Boys network and financial privilege of Paul’s. They felt the men were able to use their disproportionate access to events as leverage, or “licence” to interact with girls with little need to assess or evaluate the consequences.

The extensive and often unchallenged privilege of college institutions can act as a hurdle for change. As one former Women’s College student noted, “Confronting issues of elitism and sexism means confronting an institution that many people hold as important to their identity.”

One current Paul’s student indicated residents often feel pressure to live up to strange college “roles they think they are expected to play”. Similarly, the heteronormative discourse of “brother/ sister” colleges, where women who go on to marry Paul’s men are playfully referred to as successful “statistics”, can generate further pressure for women to ignore or accept their peers problematic behaviour. 

In an attempt to curb this behaviour, the St Paul’s College Handbook, helpfully provided to us by Paul’s Warden Dr Ivan Head, says, “Men are very specifically advised that if something is harassing or sexist... they should cease, desist, and remove immediately any offensive post as [it is] against clearly stated college policy.”

Critics question whether this policy further reinforces a tendency for college men to apologise when the reputation of their college is at risk, rather than because they acknowledge their actions wrongful. 

Of course, not everyone at college behaves in this way. Yet, even the most progressive students at college, including ourselves when we attended, sometimes passively ignore and accept structural and institutional power dynamics, encouraged by a culture of secrecy and silence. 

The policies of both colleges instruct their residents to refrain from making public statements about the college that could endanger their public image.

The Women’s College residents we spoke to almost all insisted on appearing off the record. When we repeatedly tried to engage with the St Paul’s College Student’s Club they simply responded with, “The St Paul’s College Students’ Club Committee fully supports the statement of Dr Head.” 

Many Women’s College students we had assumed would speak to us instead sent us polite messages noting they would prefer not to be involved, as our article may tarnish the college and their friends. 

We remembered the two hours of media training held at our college O Week. We remembered being told never to talk to journalists. 

When people aren’t able to openly discuss the problems that plague their institution, they are doomed to remain. One former Paul’s resident noted, “When you talk about sexual assault in the army and a silencing culture in the army, I understand the culture that forces soldiers to try to defend the army but, when I look at them, I don’t really forgive them for it. But I do the same for college.”

When we started this piece, intrigued by a maze of secret rooms and scandalous rumours, we expected to expose a world of sexist college tradition. 

But instead of rituals, the sexism we discovered was casual, and untraceable, more likely to take place in private Facebook groups than private parties. For us, and the women we spoke to, this was far more insidious, and far more damaging, than any Bone Room. 

Art by Zita Walker