(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

The Morrison ministry has long been criticised for being a boys club. Members are overwhelmingly white men who attended private schools. In fact, this has been common in both Labor and Liberal cabinets for decades. 

Recently, thousands of testimonies from young women have been collated in a public word document detailing sexual assault by, predominantly, young men who went to private boys’ schools in Australia. The wave has prompted parents and students to demand better teaching of sexual consent in Australian schools. 

Meanwhile, a scandal continues involving a current cabinet minister accused of the 1988 rape of a 16-year-old while she was on a school trip. Media organisations can’t go into details that would identify the alleged rapist for risk of defamation.

Of the 22 current federal cabinet ministers, 16 are men. Thirteen of those men went to private high schools. Of those 13 private schools, five were single-sex schools and seven were religious.

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A string of allegations

The young women’s collected testimonies, most of which relate to incidents that occurred in the past five years, were collated by former Kambala Church of England Girls’ School student Chanel Contos who launched a viral petition drawing attention to student sexual assault. Many of the testimonies give damning accounts of students from NSW private schools.

Sydney Grammar, where Communications Minister Paul Fletcher attended, has been named five times in the testimonies. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s school, Sydney Boys High School (a state school), has been named once.

Outside of those contemporary testimonies, many of the schools attended by ministers have allegations dating back decades.

A former teacher at Attorney-General Christian Porter’s Hale School faced sex charges allegedly committed against under-age girls. A former humanities dux at Xavier College, where Education Minister Dan Tehan went, later solicited young girls into prostitution. At Social Services Minister Stuart Robert’s Rockhampton Grammar School a pupil alleged he was sexually assaulted by a prefect.

A problem of private or all-boys schools?

University of Melbourne lecturer and researcher in sexual violence Bianca Fileborn told Crikey that while sexual violence occurs both in public and private schools, certain features of private schools need to be addressed.

Private schools may take action to protect their reputation and minimise a perpetrator’s actions, she says, while students are more likely to have access to legal resources to defend themselves.

“There are some concerns that all-male schools are a hyper-masculine environment … and the attitudes that underpin sexual violence can really be supported within an all-male peer group,” she said.

There’s is a growing body of research on groupthink and male peer support of sexual violence.

Finally, we may just be more likely to hear from private school students.

“It might also just be a reflection of who feels able to speak out and disclose their experiences,” she said.

Expert in gender and sexuality at the University of Western Sydney Professor Kerry Robinson told Crikey sexual violence was an issue facing all young people in schools.

“Single-sex boys schools can perpetuate a dominant masculinity that fosters aggressive competitive values that are about distancing themselves from any alignment with feminine values and powering over others,” she said.

“All schooling cultures and institutional practices in schools can reinforce gender and power inequities that contribute to the perpetuation of gender-based harassment and violence, including sexual harassment.”

Robinson says that consent education “needs to be part of young people’s learning from an early age”, something that can be done “in age-appropriate ways to teach body autonomy”.

Importantly, consent education likely wouldn’t have stopped the accused cabinet minister from allegedly raping the woman. As the woman’s statement outlined, the alleged rape appeared to be planned.

But it would take away the “ignorance” defence and help change attitudes toward sexual violence.