Cece Dao, 21, a Vietnamese student taking the International Bachelor’s degree in Communication & Media at Erasmus University, says she is a victim of sexual abuse. She claims to have been sexually assaulted by a fellow student in 2017. Cece feels that the university did not properly respond after she reported the student’s misconduct to the student coordinators. She decided to draw up a petition in which she demanded that the alleged attacker be removed from the university. Said petition has by now been signed by almost 3,000 people. The university decided in early April to have the fellow student follow online lectures.
Shocking and traumatising
Since Cece was experiencing some problems with her bedsit, she spent a few nights at a good friend’s place. “It happened while I was asleep,” says Cece. “I felt his hands on my body when I woke up. It was about 3 am. He kept touching me. He was touching my genitals and was trying to take off my shirt. He kept at it until it turned light. I wasn’t sure how to respond, because I was confused. I was scared, because it was dark and shocking. It’s quite a big deal when a friend of yours does something like that to you.”
Cece experienced the ‘freeze’ response, a common response among victims of sexual abuse. Some 50 per cent of rape victims feel ‘paralysed’, according to the CSG.
With the support of her friends, including a female friend who had experienced sexual abuse herself, Cece decided to publish her story on Facebook a day later, without naming her attacker. The alleged attacker then apologised to her in a private message and told her that he would leave the degree programme.
However, during the next academic year, she would regularly bump into him during lectures. “That was traumatising and I was experiencing panic attacks. I decided to ask the student coordinators for help. They then referred me to the dean, but they told me that the university would be unable to take any measures as long as I hadn’t reported the case to the police and didn’t have any evidence. It wasn’t until after the petition that I found out that the university has a legal affairs committee. In other words, the university did have the authority to investigate the case and implement measures. But no one had told me about this. The university finally sprang into action once the petition started getting some publicity. I thought that was quite suspect,” says Cece.
A year after the incident occurred, Cece, with the help of the dean, went to the police. The investigation is still ongoing, despite the fact that she showed the police messages in which the alleged attacker admits what he did to her and apologises. In the meantime, she has also filed a complaint with the university’s legal affairs committee. Cece: “This is a very problematic and bureaucratic process. It’s taking a very long time. Sometimes it feels like they are machines rather than human beings.”
Sexual assault and sexually transgressive behaviour are quite common in the Netherlands, judging from the anonymous survey performed by Rutgers, the international centre of expertise on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The centre reports that 22 per cent of all women and 6 per cent of all men in the Netherlands have experienced penetration or manual sex against their will and/or have been forced to perform sexual acts against their will. Rutgers calls these forms of sexual abuse ‘sexual assault’. A much higher percentage of the population has fallen victim to sexually transgressive behaviour: 53 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men have (also) been kissed or touched intimately against their will.
Over 33 per cent of these men and 25 per cent of the women have never shared their experience(s) of sexual abuse with anyone. Only a small percentage (4 per cent of men and 11 per cent of women) reported the abuse to the police.
“Although Rutgers conducted an anonymous survey and it’s believed that people are more honest about their experiences in such surveys, CSG believes that the known figures still do not cover all cases of sexual abuse,” says Janna Teeuwen, a case manager with CSG Utrecht. “There are many reasons why victims don’t tell others about the sexual abuse they have experienced. For example, they may feel guilt or embarrassment or taboo, or they may fear victim blaming and blackmail. In addition, victims of long-term abuse have had to keep it to themselves for a long time and may have decided never to tell anyone. They may also experience a conflict of loyalty when they know the perpetrator. In our stereotypical notions, rapists are generally ‘men hiding in the shrubs’, while in actual fact, perpetrators are often known to their victims. With students, the perpetrators tend to be friends, acquaintances or dates. And some people don’t tell anyone because they aren’t aware that what they experienced was in fact sexual abuse, and because people don’t always seek help.”
Cece publicised her story a day after the abuse incident. Even so, she did not tell her family for a year, due to victim blaming. “Vietnam is quite conservative. I was often verbally harassed there while out and about. My parents would always blame me when that happened. They’d say it was probably because of the way I dress or behave, or because of my nose piercing. Once I had reported the case to the police, I decided to tell my parents and sister. Their immediate response was to blame me. I’d hoped my sister would be more progressive. I’ve decided not to discuss it with them anymore, so as not to have my feelings hurt. Although not receiving any support from my family hurts, too.” CSG reports that victim blaming is often more painful to the victim than the abuse itself.
Cece received a lot of negative reactions from non-relatives, as well. “I received negative responses on my petition’s Facebook page, in the comments under the articles in the university’s magazine and even on my personal Facebook page. For instance, someone called me ‘an attention-seeking piece of shit’ on my Facebook timeline. Many people forget that the victim experiences something traumatic. It takes a lot of effort to change this negative mentality.” Yet these negative responses have not been demotivating to her. On the contrary: they are motivating her to change the way in which sexual abuse is perceived. “This is not just about me. It’s about many, many other victims.”
Experiencing sexual assault has a profound effect on many of the victims, says Rutgers. More than half of the women and nearly half of the men who admitted to having suffered sexual assault indicated in the poll that they were experiencing problems due to sexual assault. In most cases, these were psychological, sexual and relationship-related problems, such as damaged self-confidence or self-respect, a reduced libido, and commitment issues. In addition, CSG states that two in three victims of rape will experience more sexual assault if they do not have therapy. Therefore, professional help is crucial.
“One of the reasons why students are at increased risk of sexual abuse is because of their above-average alcohol consumption,” Teeuwen told us. When a person is under the influence of alcohol, he/she is less able to maintain boundaries, meaning he/she is more vulnerable to abuse. Alcohol may also cause attackers to have a reduced understanding of boundaries.
Teeuwen feels that universities should play an important part in preventing sexual abuse and in providing students who have fallen victim to sexual abuse with help. “Universities should admit that sexual abuse, in its many guises, happens among students, and state unequivocally that it will not be tolerated. Universities should publicise the fact that they have confidential advisers to whom students can turn to tell their stories. Ideally, these confidential advisers should also be familiar with CSG, so that they can ask us for a recommendation on what kind of help to provide. Furthermore, it’s vital that the confidential advisers refer a victim to CSG within seven days of the incident.” According to CSG, victims are most likely to make a psychological recovery, and STDs and pregnancies are best prevented and DNA traces best preserved when victims are referred within those seven days. Cece was alerted to CSG’s existence by the police. EUR’s social workers had never mentioned it to her.
Cece, too, would like to see EUR make some improvements. Along with Martin Blok, EUR’s confidential adviser in chief, Cece is currently discussing new measures to be taken in relation to sexual abuse at EUR. “The university must provide clearly defined support in cases of sexual abuse, because sexual abuse is more common than the university thinks it is,” says Cece. “Students should be told on their first day at uni whom to contact when they encounter sexual abuse. The university must have one designated person who knows about all the various options, so that students will not be referred to different persons.”
“Furthermore, the university must teach students about their fundamental rights and sexual consent. For instance, some people will say they were not sexually abused, even though they were sexually groped without their consent. In other words, they are not acknowledging that they experienced sexual abuse, even though they did. In addition, it’s vital that they receive proper psychological support. When I saw the student psychologist, the focus ended up being on my academic performance. If you wish to grow in academic terms, you must be granted the opportunity to grow in mental terms, as well.”
According to EUR’s annual report 2017, 18 students reported sexually transgressive behaviour. 14 of the students filing the complaints were women, and 12 of the accused were male students. 12 reports concerned sexual intimidation. The latter figure was lower for staff: only 4 of the 23 reports concerned sexual intimidation. Here, 20 of the persons filing the complaints were female, while 16 of the accused were male.
‘‘The phrase sexual intimidation encompasses a lot,’’ says Blok. ‘‘In the great majority of cases it concerned undesirable groping, sexting and inappropriate comments. Two cases concerned sexual intimidation and abuse.’’
By now EUR has established a pilot study called EUR Policy Regarding Misconduct Relating to Both Staff and Students (2018-2019) to improve social safety. The report regarding the pilot study states that the university is working on a broad culture change: greater transparency on issues involving intimidating behaviour and sexual intimidation, a clearer policy and clearer guidelines, and a clearer job description for confidential advisers.
‘‘The pilot study was established because we, the confidential advisers, told the Executive Board that EUR’s facilities for combatting misconduct were completely inadequate,” says Blok. “So the Executive Board allowed us to embark on a pilot study. We have recently established a network of confidential advisers and have begun organising training courses for managers.’’
Unclear tasks and boundaries
The report regarding the pilot study mentions that misconduct is currently often reported to study advisers, since it is not clear to either students or staff who is responsible for which tasks. As a result, study advisers are currently assuming duties that are supposed to be performed by confidential advisers, even though they are not specifically trained to do so. This means that many of the reports of misconduct remain invisible, since the study advisers often fail to recognise that they concern misconduct.
‘‘We are getting the impression that many students are not aware that we have confidential advisers. In addition, some victims are afraid to report the incidents,’’ Blok tells us. ‘‘We expect the establishment of a network of confidential advisers and improved provision of information to raise awareness of the confidential advisers’ existence. By now we have put the confidential advisers’ names on the website.’’