From Bill English’s position on gender equality, to jokes about raping drunk girls made by students at Wellington College, several news stories over the last few months have caused a rise in the discussion of feminism and rape culture. High school students have been central in many of these discussions. It was students from Wellington East Girls College who played a leading role in organising the rape culture protests which took place outside of parliament in Wellington last month. Massive Magazine’s Josh Beck asked leader of the Wellington High School Feminist Club, Ruby Robinson-Shaw, her thoughts on these topics.
What is it about feminism that made it important enough to you personally to join a feminism club?
Feminism has been instrumental in my life and those of everyone that is important to me. I love and am invested in my feminist community and I’m deeply passionate about gender equality. So being a part of feminist club meant I could talk about experiences, learn about and find the people that were passionate too, and rally for change.
Why do you think having feminist clubs at New Zealand high schools is important?
They’re important for many reasons. Firstly, they’re a way for disenfranchised young girls/femme/gender non-binary (GNB) people to form a collective that can efficiently organise and implement positive change. They can also fill the role of a safe space, so people can talk about experiences to do with their marginalisation without feeling judged or threatened. And moreover, even if the majority of the students don’t attend, in being a recognised club, everyone becomes aware of feminism and at the very least, that starts a dialogue.
You are a student at Wellington High School, which is a co-ed school. Would you say that this is beneficial when teaching students about things such a sex and consent?
I went to a single-sex girls school for a year before I moved to Wellington High School, and when you move you realise from being in class with GNB and male students that there’s nothing innately different about people that you could dissect by gender. We all do the same work, so we should be treated equally and there shouldn’t be any double standards. And it’s not like we don’t have duds at our school but if you spoke to someone from Wellington High School compared to someone from Wellington College, you’d most likely see a positive difference in attitudes, in terms of sex and consent.
How would you respond to Wellington College’s principal Roger Moses saying that comments, such as the ones recently made by Wellington College boys, are confined to online spaces?
What was most irritating for me was when Roger Moses said they were normally good lads. I don’t know what the criteria for a good lad is, but certainly a good person doesn’t employ his peers to take advantage of a drunk girl, then f*** her. The implication Moses made is that comments like that do nothing to discredit the standings of a Wellington College ‘lad’ inside of his school. So obviously, there’s a problem with toxic ‘lad’ culture at Wellington College. It’s not a social media problem; it’s a cultural problem, aided by institutions.
Following those boys’ comments there have been calls for improved education of consent in high schools. What do you think should be done to prevent negative ideas about sex forming before people enter high school?
I think that negative ideation stems from larger cultural problems around gender, where there isn’t a clear solution. Before boys develop sexuality, they’ve already been exposed to and had misogyny normalised for them through media representation, language and social practice. I guess if we taught teenage boys better now, they’d be able to teach their kids to reject those messages. But then again, we’ve got maybe 15 years before we all pop our clogs from global warming, so I’m probably being too optimistic about the future.
Wellington College boys responded to the rape culture protesters by threatening them with violence. How consistent is this with the kinds of reactions the Wellington High School feminist club gets from other students?
We have boys say stupid stuff “ironically”, and rip our posters down and shout things occasionally, but Wellington High School isn’t [the same]. Over there, there’s a lot of school pride tied up with misogyny and lad culture, so I guess intimidation tactics help preserve delicate male egos. Whereas I don’t think emasculation is a school-wide thing here, so reactions from non-feminist men are more benign.
Are male students encouraged to join the Wellington High School feminist club, and why is this?
Of course. We have male students that come to meetings and support from some boys at school. Our feminism is about gender theory and social change, which pertain to everyone, so women, men and GNB people are all encouraged to come. Fem club’s real problem is that a lot of boys don’t want to come because there’s misinformation about what feminism is. I think they feel threatened or emasculated by it in some way, which is kind of ironic because our fem club could probably teach them how to evade that toxic masculinity if they did attend.
How does rape culture influence high school students’ decisions about which universities and university accommodations they choose to apply for?
One in five girls are sexually assaulted by the time they go to college, so it’s always a looming threat in terms of housing and choice of university. Assault becomes an impediment on mental health as well as a person’s ability to produce good work for a lot of people, so I think women and GNB have to consider the culture around the university region considerably.
What positive outcomes have you and those around you experienced as a result of your protests and activism?
So much attention has been drawn to the issue, so many think pieces about New Zealand rape culture [have been written], which is really cool to see because now some actual action is being taken towards changing legislative mandates. Some of my friends from Wellington High School are starting a campaign with ActionStation to make the teaching of consent, LGBTQIA+ relationships and healthy communication compulsory. (https://our.actionstation.org.nz/petitions/better-sex-education-in-schools).
I think as a result boys can’t dodge accountability by blaming social media, anymore. “Ironic” reactionary jokes about rape are still jokes about rape, and there’s a large, powerful group of Wellington feminists that are gonna make them take responsibility for the shit they pull, online or not.