“Catcalling and offensive comments are something my friends and I have to deal with on a daily basis.” “It’s ‘part and parcel’ of being a woman on the internet, but no one wants to see your gross dick pic.” “A university friend said I probably hadn’t been clear because I had been drinking and doing drugs.” “I really felt like it was my own fault.”
These are just some of the responses in a survey carried out by Erasmus Magazine on sexually transgressive behaviour among students. A large proportion of students have recounted stories about sexually transgressive experiences, whether it concerns an unsavoury joke or a sexual assault or rape.
In a series of articles, EM highlights sexual transgressive behaviour among students in the coming weeks. This is part 1.
Part 1: Dire cases are no exception for sexual harassment among students
Part 4: University has barely any insight into sexually transgressive behaviour among students
Part 5: What students find sexually transgressive
Two-thirds of the 293 respondents stated that they had experienced sexually transgressive behaviour since they started their studies at Erasmus University. Women more often than men: 80 percent of the women who took part and 35 percent of men say that they have encountered some form of sexually transgressive behaviour at one time or another.
Sexually transgressive behaviour is by no means always related to student life or university. However, 45 percent of the students who have had these sorts of experiences say that they have personally experienced at least once that the other was connected to the university in some way. In most cases it concerned another EUR student, and occasionally, lecturers.
There are many ways that people overstep the sexual boundaries of others1.Such incidents can take place digitally, for instance, through sexually-tinged comments on social media or dick pics. Or verbally, for example catcalling, sexually-tinged jokes or comments about someone’s sexual orientation or appearance. Many students have also dealt with physically transgressive behaviour. Consider things such as inappropriate touching or kissing, for example during an evening out. But rape as well.
One in ten female students in the Netherlands has been a victim of rape during her time as a student, a study carried out by Amnesty International revealed last year. Of the students who filled in the EM questionnaire, 9 percent said they have had penetration or oral sex against their will since they started studying at Erasmus University. In almost all cases, the other person is someone they know: a friend, partner, fellow student or a date. Half of the students say the other part was also a student at the EUR. It often takes place in student houses, in the student house of the victim themselves (44 percent), or in another student house (28 percent).
Students who have experienced unwanted penetration state that the other person kept on going without checking whether they wanted it, ignored that they did not want it or were insistent or whined on about it. Another factor is that alcohol is often involved. Two out of three say that the other person took advantage of the fact that they were under the influence. In a quarter of the cases, the other person gave them alcohol or drugs.
The Sexual Assault Center offers help to anyone who has had an unwanted sexual experience. You can chat for free and anonymously or call 0800-0188.
The university has confidential advisors for employees and students to whom you can report any undesirable behaviour. They will listen to your story and can help and refer you. There is also a complaints procedure for undesirable behaviour.
Feelings of guilt
Some students are ashamed of what they have been through, or feel partly responsible. “He blamed me afterwards”, says a medical student about the time she had sex with a fellow student against her will. “A friend from the study said that I probably wasn’t clear enough because I had been drinking and taking drugs, that it must have been a misunderstanding. She and another mutual friend also arranged to meet him several times afterwards. That made it feel like it was my choice.”
An RSM student says that feeling guilty makes it all the more difficult. “I felt very much like it was somehow my own fault and that I should have been clearer. That sense of guilt, and because there was no explicit violence, makes it very difficult to recognise the situation for what it was and deal with it.”
Unsolicited touching or kissing is very common. More than half of the women and one in five men in the survey say they have encountered this at some time or another. It often happens while going out, and tends to be a stranger who perpetrates it. Half of the students who have been kissed without their permission say that it happened at a bar or club.
One out of three students who have been touched inappropriately, says that another student did it. Some students say that lecturers have touched them inappropriately. “I switched study groups, but I still see him everywhere in the building”, writes a master’s student about a lecturer who touched her against her will. Once, she ran into him on campus when no one was around. “I really felt terribly scared. You can’t prevent things like that unless you actually leave university. I’m not prepared to do that, but I don’t feel good about this situation either.”
Having to hear sexually explicit jokes
More than half of the students who completed the questionnaire have experienced verbal sexual harassment. One in three women have heard inappropriate sexually explicit jokes, comments or sexually explicit stories. One in three also has to deal with comments about their body, appearance or their private sexual activities.
“In my first year, there were a few of those macho guys around. They’d just turned 18, had a big mouth and all they ever did was make sexually explicit comments. Nobody said anything about it, and I didn’t either”, writes a Master’s student. “That is why they keep on doing it. You don’t report ‘small’ things like that, but it means that structural misconduct goes unnoticed and nothing is ever done about it. I don’t think they even realise the impact it has if you end up thinking every week: ‘Pfff, do I have to hear those jokes about sex all over again.'”
LGBTQ+ students are more likely to be confronted with verbal transgressive behaviour. A quarter of them say they have been subjected to inappropriate comments about their sexual orientation.
No more skirts
Students are also regularly called names in the street. Two out of three female students mention this. Street harassment often leads to feelings of insecurity and frustration.”I’m tired of this happening no matter what I wear, or how I act“, one international student said. “If I am in my pjs, I get told that ‘I’ll be waiting for you in bed’, if I’m wearing my gym clothes, I get comments that my body looks good, my clothes are too tight and that I’m asking for it. I can’t wear anything loose cause then I’m told not to hide what I have. I just want to be able to be outside and not have to phone a friend or my mom to make it look like I’m busy so that random strangers wont catcall or stalk me.”
Several students state that they adapt how they behave to try to avoid street harassment. “I’m just a lot more wary,” says an RSM student. “I don’t wear skirts and dresses as often, even though I really enjoy wearing them.”
Even at the university
Verbal sexually transgressive behaviour mainly occurs on the street or in nightlife settings. However, 11 percent of the students who have been subjected to such behaviour say that it happens to them at university as well.
One in five respondents are also confronted with sexually transgressive behaviour online. This often concerns receiving sexual comments or images. “After a few weird DMs, I set my account to private and deleted photos”, says a master’s student. “Getting dick pics is apparently the most normal thing in the world. I get them all the time through Facebook”, an EUC student adds.
Shocking, but not surprising
Assistant professor Samira van Bohemen of the Erasmus Love Lab calls the results of the survey ‘shocking, but not surprising’. Among other things, she researched what young people consider to be good sex. “The discussion about sexually transgressive behaviour quickly boils down to: what is and what is not acceptable? But this research shows that very distressing cases are no exception whatsoever. We are talking about one in ten women who have been a victim of rape. A lot of experiences with sexually transgressive behaviour have a huge impact.”
“Those experiences are really very diverse”, says associate professor Daphne van de Bongardt, who researches romantic and sexual relationships of young people. “We shouldn’t call them experiences that fall into a grey area, because they are not that at all. But lots of experiences aren’t very black and white either. It usually isn’t about being dragged off your bike and into the bushes. So it is important to discuss with each other what we consider to be transgressive, in addition to the official legislation.”
The fact that a lot of sexual harassment does have an adverse impact on students is also evident from the survey. Almost half of them say they experience problems afterwards. Especially students who have been subjected to non-consensual penetration or oral sex have a lot of problems later on. Four out of five students say they suffered from psychological problems. Several students mention long-term severe problems, such as being suicidal or suffering from depression.
More than half of them say they have problems of a sexual nature afterwards and one in three reports that their study grades have deteriorated. “I believed for a long while that I was asexual because I never enjoyed having sex with my partner“, writes a third-year student. “Only later I realised I was just too young and not ready to enjoy sex. I never truly wanted it but just did it for my partner’s pleasure and not for mine. Only after I broke up, researched what sexual harrasment truly is and properly explored my body, I was finally able to enjoy having sex with my new partner.”
Unsolicited touching or verbal and digital sexually transgressive behaviour also cause problems. For example, one international master’s student says that for a while, she avoided the communal kitchen and social activities because a housemate might be there who made obnoxious comments.
At the same time, there are also plenty of students who say that they are not bothered by sexually transgressive behaviour. “It is good to bear in mind that not every negative experience in your life has an impact on you”, says Van Bohemen. “Students are just coming out of adolescence, so they are in a kind of exploratory phase where they are exploring and learning to recognise boundaries. That’s inherent to this age. So, on the one hand, you may experience something that is not very serious or that does not bother you afterwards. But that does not mean that engaging in transgressive behaviour is acceptable. Naturally, it is often context-specific and there are varying degrees of severity, but at the same time, we do agree that a lot of things are absolutely unacceptable. And a lot of students have to deal with these things too.”
Van de Bongardt shares this view: “Of course, not every single negative experience is a problem. You also discover your own boundaries by occasionally going beyond them. That can be very useful. But if something bad happens, or if you are adversely affected by that experience, then it is definitely problematic.”
One in three men say they have at times experienced sexual harassment. This usually relates to being touched or kissed against their will. “Female harrasement on guys is hardly ever taken seriously“, says an RSM student who was touched against his will by a female student. “There’s a huge stigma around guys being harassed by women and non-straight men. Society taught me I just have to deal with it”, says another RSM student who was harassed by a fellow student.
Van Bohemen: ” It is true that there is a great deal of stigma attached to men who are harassed by other men. But that same stigma is also there if they’re harassed by women. As a society, we see this as less of a problem. We still tend to define it in terms of men being the hunters and women being the ones who are hunted. But that is obviously not the way things are.”
Many students say they only realised later on that something was not right. “It took a very long time for me to realise that I was being abused”, says a student who was in an abusive relationship for a long time. “The situation developed slowly over time, and when you are so far into it, it is difficult to realise that yourself.” Another student describes that her bed partner once took off a condom without her being aware of that. “At that point, I didn’t realise how wrong that was”, she explains.
“You also saw that with the victims of The Voice, for example,” says Van Bohemen. She thinks that something has changed in the public perception of sexually transgressive behaviour in recent years. “Even when you talk about rape, for example: for a long time, the public perception was that you had to explicitly say ‘no’. And for a long time, the public perception was also that rape is committed by strangers. Now far more people know that almost all rape cases happen between people who know each other. I think in recent years, people have been given more means in a cultural sense to be able to articulate what they have been through.”
“We are also at a stage where the mindset about this kind of thing is changing,” Van de Bongardt concurs. “Take, for example, being pinched in the bum in a bar. That is not natural behaviour by any means, we are increasingly saying, that is not okay. We are pushing things out of the grey area into the black and white.”
Between 24 March and 10 April, 293 students completed the Erasmus Magazine survey. They were asked about their experiences with sexual harassment and reporting it, their own behaviour and ideas about what is sexually transgressive for them. Female students are overrepresented in the survey. 66 percent of respondents are women, compared to 55 per cent of all EUR students. The same probably applies to LGBTQ+ students, although that is difficult to say since it is not known what part of the students belongs to the LGBTQ+ community.
Due to this overrepresentation, it is possible that sexually transgressive experiences are reported a little more often, as other studies show that women and LGBTQ+ persons report more transgressive experiences. At the same time, we do not see major differences with the results on similar questions in previous research among students.
Do you want to know more about the investigation? Read this article where we explain how we did this and what choices we’ve made. Also read the response by rector magnificus Annelien Bredenoord.