The interviewee has been anonymised in this article, both in the text and the photograph, in order to protect the identity. The name is known to the editor-in-chief. EM will guarantee this anonymity at all times.

“It happened in January 2020. It was my first year at EUR and the perpetrator was a fellow student. We had a lot of contact before that, and became good friends. My friends also quickly became friends with him, so we formed a kind of group of friends.

In a series of articles, EM highlights sexual transgressive behaviour among students in the coming weeks. This is part 2.

Part 1: Dire cases are no exception for sexual harassment among students

Part 2: ‘I run into the student who assaulted me all the time’

Part 3: ‘It feels like I’m the one being punished for the assault, not the perpetrator’

Part 4: University has little insight into sexual harassment among students

Part 5: What students find sexually transgressive

“In retrospect, I should have known something was off. There were a few occasions – when we were alone – when I felt unsafe. For example, we would sit next to each other and he would then touch me. What he did was always on the borderline of what’s acceptable, so it was hard for me to place it. I stiffened up a lot when he touched me and my heart beat very fast. I was scared, but also confused. I thought: ‘What’s going on? Is this wrong or is it okay for him to act like that as a friend?’

“I felt guilty that I was uncomfortable with what he did and had doubts about his intentions. He was a good friend and I trusted him. I didn’t want to draw any wrong conclusions, because that would have been unfair to our friendship.”

Sexual assault

“Stuff like that happened a few times and I found it harder and harder to deal with him. He noticed that too, I think. The situation led to problems within our circle of friends. At one point there was an argument and the group broke up. I felt so guilty that this happened, which is why I went to his room on campus to talk it out with him.

While I was trying to sort out the problem, he groped me. He went further than he had previously gone. I found that very frightening, but now it was clear to me that my instincts were right. I said to him, I don’t want this, but he didn’t let me go. So I push him away and immediately left his room. I was very upset, I felt threatened. I ran to the Polak building, where two of my friends were.

“My friends saw me crying and hyperventilating and asked me what was wrong. At that moment, all I could say was that he had touched me. My friends didn’t go into it, so I decided not to explain it any further.”

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Harrowing and traumatic

“The sexual assault was one thing; the aftermath was in some ways even more devastating. I didn’t tell anyone in our group of friends what had really happened. He, on the other hand, talked to all our friends afterwards, including my best friend. He said that I was very emotional and complicated, and that he didn’t want to put up with that. So, he distanced himself from me and from our circle of friends. My best friend told me this later. And at the time, it also seemed to be true to our friends, as I really was emotional and unstable, but that was because I found the sexual assault so harrowing and traumatic!

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‘I was really reluctant to talk about it, because I was afraid that people would not believe me’ Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

“I felt so powerless that he had done this. I had no control over what our friends thought of me. My best friend said to me, ‘I don’t want to get involved, I am neutral’. I found that so hard to hear, but I didn’t dare tell her what he had done.

“I was really reluctant to talk about it, because I was afraid that people would not believe me. I also didn’t want to give our friends the feeling that they had to choose sides. Because what if they didn’t take my side? Then I would lose everyone. I couldn’t cope with that.”

Consciously building up to cope  

“The campus is my second home and I came there almost every day. But whenever he and I were sitting together in a lecture hall, I felt powerless. He is popular and everyone likes him. During lectures, he acted as if nothing was the matter. Every time I saw him, I was overwhelmed. The room suffocated me whenever he was there, it was as if all the doors and windows were closed and the room was flooded with water. For two months, I often went to the toilet during lectures. Then I sat there all alone, hyperventilating and panicking.

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“Fortunately, corona then hit. That was very good for me, because I didn’t have to see him anymore. I skipped the first online lectures. I didn’t want to see his face on the screen, since he was quite active in discussions and always had something to say. I watched the recordings afterwards, so that I could speed up the image whenever he was visible.

“I gradually tried to follow online lectures again. I did not look at the screen whenever he was speaking. I also knew that Corona would one day disappear and that I would have to see him in real life again. So, I started to consciously build myself up to deal with that. Using the images from the lectures, I practiced being able to see him. Little by little I got used to that.”

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.

Acceptance

“The only person I told this story to was my psychologist. On the one hand, it was difficult because I was all alone, but on the other hand it was also nice that I could process it myself in peace and quiet. Once I have come to terms with it, then it’s really finished. If I had told people, it would only have been a case of my word against his. I had no proof; I went to see him of my own free will. It happened in his room. I was afraid that public opinion would all turn against me.

“Last summer I told my best friend, and recently a good friend of mine. They find it shocking. I asked them if they had believed me if I had told them last year. They both replied: ‘Of course!’ It means a lot to me to hear that. Maybe I could have told them back then, who knows if things would have turned out differently and I would have found more support.

“I was angriest to myself because I hadn’t trusted my own feelings. In therapy, I learned to accept that I had done what I could. He violated my autonomy and self-determination. In order to regain that, I have to start with acceptance: it happened and I did what I could.”

Not reported

“I never reported it. Of course, I knew I could go to the police and report him. But because it was so emotional for me, I found it very complicated. If it was a stranger on the street, I would have called the police right away. But because he was a friend, it felt more like interpersonal conflict than transgressive behaviour, which it obviously was!

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“I also didn’t know that there are confidential counsellors at the EUR to whom you can go. Had I known that, I would probably have contacted them. My best friend said the other day, ‘But there were posters about confidential counsellors in Polak.’ I thought it was so stupid: I didn’t get any help because I hadn’t looked at a poster!”

Safe place

“Now that everything has reopened, I’m bumping into him again on campus. The first few times, I was overwhelmed and secretly had to cry in Polak. But now things are going fine. I can just face him when I run into him. I regularly see him walking with young students and I worry about those girls. Then I feel guilty that I can’t warn them about him. That’s why I’m telling my story now, so hopefully those girls will read this article and realise that it is about him.

“I have never confronted him about what he did to me and I don’t feel the need to do that either. I am not afraid of him anymore and the campus remains a safe place for me as well. When I see him on campus now, it feels like he is just a guest in my home.”

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EM had three interviews with the student for this story. A good friend of the student, from the same group of friends, was present during one of these conversations. He was able to confirm important parts of the story.