Toxic masculinity: How a single word sums up size of the task ahead in teaching respect

The expulsion this week of students from a Victorian private boys’ school shows how very far we have to go in teaching our sons to respect women. One word beggars belief, writes Madonna King.

May 09, 2024, updated May 09, 2024
A Victorian private boys' school has expelled students involved in a game where female students are 'rated' by male students. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

A Victorian private boys' school has expelled students involved in a game where female students are 'rated' by male students. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

The epicentre for boys behaving badly might have been Yarra Valley Grammar this week, but it would be foolhardy not to think the same ratings are delivered at other schools.

They are, even spiking in the last two years of high school ahead of semi-formals and formal celebrations.

In at least one case told to me, the prospective female semi-formal partner had to receive a median ranking from a group of boys before she was ‘entitled’ to an invitation.

If she didn’t meet that ranking, the male student had to find another ‘more suitable’ partner.

It’s hideous. It’s horrible. And it’s heartbreaking.

But what made Yarra Valley Grammar particularly unconscionable and indefensible was a particular ranking category.


The school’s principal Mark Merry deserves our acknowledgement for the decisive action he took in expelling and suspending those students at the centre of the scandal. But he had no choice.

In a climate where domestic violence is making daily headlines, and where a woman is being murdered every four days, we have to ask ourselves why teen boys would even think to create such a category for some of their peers – and then proceed to write that word.


In Brisbane, this week, a young woman also released a video of the abuse she copped while walking home from an NRL game in the inner city.

In that disgraceful episode, a car filled with men slowed down, and threatened to rape her.

I wish those men could feel the fear she felt in that moment. Or many of us feel walking to our cars after dark. I wish those teen students could understand how the students nominated as ‘unrapable’ will carry that forward for years.

And it should break the hearts of all of us, including those decent respectful males who find this type of behaviour similarly repulsive, that we are dealing with this in 2024.

But this episode cannot be over. We can’t congratulate the school for taking action, and move on.

We have to understand why some boys and men are thinking like this.

Will expulsion change the way they think?

Will police talking to a carload of abusers in Brisbane mean they won’t sexually harass another female?

It’s unlikely.

It also seems as though the bottomless pit of money thrown at school relationship programs and the public national conversation led by impressive young women like Chanel Contos have failed to move the dial on how we – girls and women – are seen by some.

Some people argue that the male students have faced consequences bigger than what they term a dreadful mistake that they are unlikely to repeat.

But what would prompt male students – at Yarra Valley or at other schools where similar rating sheets are created – to even think like this?

And that’s the problem we need to confront.

Do they believe their place has been upturned by clever articulate young women?

Are they devotees of overseas influencers like Andrew Tate who spreads a grubby message of misogyny?

Is toxic masculinity a contagion needing a new vaccine to eliminate?

We need to find the answer to those questions, to find out how we stop males from treating girls and women as second-class citizens to be objectified or humiliated.

Letting this issue go, now that the boys have been expelled, doesn’t solve the problem at the heart of their behaviour, or how we deal with it as a nation.

That’s the issue we have to take on with zero tolerance

And it needs to be done for our daughters and nieces and sisters and mothers, but also for our good sons and nephews and brothers and fathers, who find what has unfolded in two states this week as deplorable as the rest of us.


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