A former student of an elite Melbourne college has lashed out at what he calls a sexist and cruel culture, sharing his own experiences there.
“Who in this class wants to know what it’s like to sleep with a woman who’s slept with multiple men before?”
Celebrated Australian-Filipino photographer James Robinson remembers a teacher asking this question during a sex education class at St Kevin’s College – an elite, all-boys Catholic institution in Melbourne’s affluent suburb of Toorak.
Several of his classmates raised their hands, he remembers. They were then invited to walk up to the front of their class, where they were given a cookie.
“They’re told to chew up the cookie but not to swallow. They then get given a glass,” says Mr Robinson.
The students were then asked to spit their masticated mouthfuls of cookie, soft with saliva, into the glass, which the teacher held up in front of the class.
“This is what it’s like to sleep with a woman who has been with multiple partners,” she said. “You don’t know what germs she’s carrying. You don’t know what germs from other men she’s carrying.
“And so think about that the next time you think about sleeping with a woman.”
Eight years after graduating from St Kevin’s College, this week saw Mr Robinson return to the campus in a protest which involved him burning his school blazer on the oval,
Posting a series of photos on Instagram – one of which pictures he and his partner kissing – Mr Robinson shared his memories of what he called a toxic, sexist, homophic and transphobic culture at the school.
“St Kevin’s is a bubble where privileged young men can rehearse oppression without consequence, before graduating with flying colours into public,” he wrote.
“A place where ‘locker room talk’ exists openly in hallways and classrooms.”
‘An entire system of staff who don’t agree with you.’
Mr Robinson said that given the culture he experienced at St Kevin’s, he wasn’t surprised by what he called the misogynistic and entitled attitudes among some of its students.
The New York-based photographer remembers being forcibly “outed” by an older student, bullied for his sexuality and left unsupported by teachers. At the time, at 15 years of age, the event left him suicidal.
“When you have teachers who are teaching you things in religion class around being gay, it makes you feel like there’s an entire system of school and staff who don’t agree with you,” he told news.com.au.
“So even when I had this awful experience of being outed, of course I’m not going to turn to the teachers who are teaching and saying homophobic things.”
Gradually, Mr Robinson managed to find a “little community” at St Kevin’s, however looking back on his experiences, he said he didn’t comprehend the extent of the school’s problematic culture until he had graduated.
“It’s horrible at the time but I was like, ‘Oh, that’s just what the world’s like, that’s what I’m going to have to be prepared for,’” he said.
“Once I finally graduated and gained my own perspective and language around social issues, I realised that things needed to change.”
Since sharing his photo series, Mr Robinson has received several messages from current and former students, telling him about similar experiences.
“That school, and private boys school culture as a whole, is a breeding ground for patriarchy and male entitlement, teaching a hive mind mentality that produces unquestioning heteronormative men,” read one comment.
“I shiver at the thought of a reality where I never broke through the shame of that culture and found my queerness. Thanks for sharing, it moved me deeply.”
Another gay-identifying former student shared stories of staff using homophobic slurs, making suggestions he attend gay conversion counselling and asked him to refrain from coming out.
“Some staff were allegedly ‘praying for my soul’ and called me a ‘fa**ot’, read another message shared by Mr Robinson.
“I was told by staff to reconsider coming out until I was 40 and married with children.”
“It became dangerous to stay there and I had to leave six weeks into Year 12.”
St Kevin’s College: A timeline of controversy
No stranger to controversies, St Kevin’s has taken several hits to its reputation over the past few years.
In 2019, uniformed students were filmed performing a sexist chant on a Melbourne tram.
On their way to a inter-school athletics carnival, the students were heard saying: “I wish that all the ladies; Were holes in the road; And if I was a dump truck; I’d fill them with my load.”
At the time the school issued an apology on behalf of the students, with the then-headmaster Stephen Russell confirming those involved in the chant had been disciplined.
Mr Robinson said he was familiar with the chant.
“It was something that was chanted at a lot of athletic meets with other schools. It was very familiar,” he says.
“I only had to listen to one second to know what they’re about to say.”
A scandal in 2020 also saw the resignation Mr Russell and head of sport Luke Travers, after it was revealed they provided character references for Peter Kehoe, an external athletics coach who was eventually convicted of child sex offences.
St Kevin’s was later reprimanded by the Victorian Regulations and Qualifications Authority, which said systematic failings within the school had resulted in “matters concerning the safety of students”.
Furthermore, a 2020 report commissioned by the school which consulted over 1000 members of the school community confirmed that “misogynistic language and sexist behaviour” still occurred there.
A spokesman for St Kevins College told news.com.au the school was committed to making positive changes.
In a statement, the spokesman said “the school has been very open about its past failings” and believed “transparency” was an “important step in making real change”.
In the aftermath of Mr Robinson’s post, St Kevin’s new principal Deborah Barke sent a letter to parents and students which commended him for speaking out.
“St Kevin’s College is on a journey of culture renewal, with a focus on inclusion and welcome for all,” she wrote.
“There is much goodness in our college and yet we still have much to do.”
She is the school’s first ever female principal. Mr Robinson said the change in leadership was exactly what the school needed, and he planned on meeting with her soon.
Despite this, he said the issues he was protesting over – and those which have since flooded his inbox – “extend well beyond a single school”.
“While there might be some really wonderful change that can happen by speaking to people like me, I feel like I’m coming up against an institution, not just a single school,” he said.
“At the end of the day, St. Kevin’s is a school that people send their kids to for the reputation and it’s a business which needs to prioritise profits.
“The elitism from the school comes from parents, it comes from money, it comes from years of history, and it comes from the church.”
Still, Mr Robinson has hope, if the school is willing the change.
“I know it’s something they’re doing but the school needs to start listening to the experiences of current and former students and not prioritising reputation,” he says.
“They should start focusing on the health for the students and absolutely should stop worrying about their reputation.”