The VICE Guide to Uni Life

Students at Melbourne Uni Don't Want Any Loose Talk on Their Porn Ban

"Just so y'all know, there's some girl from a magazine trying super hard to get some quotes from Ormondians about the internet filter."

by Maddison Connaughton
08 February 2018, 9:47pm

Last week The Age published a story about Melbourne University's Ormond College banning porn throughout their student accommodation. As the article highlighted, students are paying $100 a semester for internet, and several are angry about being denied access to explicit sites in the privacy of their own rooms.

For me, it was interesting to see an old-world institution like Melbourne Uni entering into a debate over porn. But, on the other hand, filtering the internet in accommodation that costs $30,000 a year is a big step. As one student, Thibaut Clamart, told the paper, "We all agree there is an issue with the current state of mainstream porn but banning it is not the answer. It won't educate people, it is condescending and paternalistic."

I wanted to hear from some other students and, at first, they were only too happy to oblige. One female student told me, "[Ormond] has strong policies regarding abuse, consent, bullying, intolerance, violence etc. Therefore, if the college believes the porn industry doesn't adhere to these similar standards, then they have the right to ban it."

"My question would be, 'Why now?'" Asked one former Ormondian. "It's not as if porn at Ormond is a new thing."

He was right. Back when the college charged residents based on the data they used (rather than a flat fee each semester) a massive student-run intranet popped up. Everyone could share movies, music and, of course, porn. Former residents estimate that one folder, "The Tower," held somewhere between 400GB and 1TB of explicit content.

By Monday evening, my story was pretty ready to go. Then, suddenly, a flurry of messages. Everyone I'd spoken to came back and asked not to be named, some recanted their comments entirely. One uninvited me to lunch at the college. Even former residents and graduates, who no longer live at Ormond, didn't want to go on the record. Way too many people told me it was a "non-story," which, just a heads up, is probably the worst thing you can tell a journalist.

As it turns out students were being encouraged not to comment to the media about the porn filter. A member of the General Council, elected to represent the residents, had posted in the college Facebook group warning students "a girl from a magazine" was trying hard to get comments. She recommended not talking to journalists.

It seemed like such a massive overreaction: "#helengarner," one student replied. So of course there's precedent for Ormond's anxiety about talking to the media, particularly about sex. In the early 1990s, two students accused the former college master of sexual harassment. One student told me the college community is still reeling from The First Stone, Helen Garner's controversial book about the scandal.

On the upside, Ormond's current college master, Rufus Black, was happy to have a conversation. He wanted to know the angle before talking, and after researching VICE he received me in his impressive office. I felt a bit like I'd been brought in to see the principal.

Black explained that nothing in particular had triggered the installation of the porn filter. After weighing the evidence for years he'd simply decided porn wasn't in line with the college's values. "People who deny the harm of pornography, to my mind, are a pretty close category to climate change deniers," he said.

When I asked Black if any particular research had influenced the decision, he motioned to some books in front of him, including Big Porn Inc. edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray. A vocal advocate for women and girls, Tankard Reist's position as a "pro-life feminist" makes her a pretty polarising figure. She believes evidence confirms a relationship between violent porn and violent behaviour. However, there are researchers, such as QUT's Alan Kee, who haven't found any significant negative effects on attitudes towards sexuality.

For his part, Black was adamant the college never asked students to not comment. He told me they were scared of a backlash from pro-porn advocates. Students I spoke to also expressed fears, but theirs were mostly around fallout at college. That and not wanting "porn" to come up next to their names in Google searches, years down the track.

The college's iconic tower. Image via

Every student I spoke to had intelligent, nuanced views but none felt they could put their names to their opinions. I was told that because I never went to college I wouldn't "get it." When I asked what that meant, they admitted they were afraid of getting kicked out, and a desire to keep things within the community. Many described the environment as a bubble, and the word "cult" came up more than you'd want. Others said college was a privilege though, and one even likened it to school camp. "Except you can drink and everyone sleeps with everyone," he added.

I left Ormond thinking that while both of these things—the filter, the college's insular mentality—were intended to protect students, they might actually have the opposite effect. Young people should feel like they can speak freely on the issues that affect them, particularly on something as serious as sexual safety. Indeed when I spoke to Thibaut Clamart, it seemed like that was all he wanted to achieve.

"Let's talk about sex," he had told me. "Let's discuss, let's debate.

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