In 2019 and 2020, the university’s confidential counsellors received twenty reports from students about sexual harassment per year. Official complaints submitted to the Committee Undesirable Behaviour are few and far between. Between 2016 and 2020, there were ten, only one of which was declared founded. According to the counsellors, the number of reports is so low that there is no insight into the extent of the problem of undesirable behaviour.

In a series of articles, EM highlights sexual harassment among students. This is part 3.

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

Part 2: ‘It feels like I’m the one being punished for the assault, not the perpetrator’

Part 3: University has barely any insight into sexually transgressive behaviour among students

Part 4: What students find sexually transgressive

“Nothing is known about the actual number of incidents involving students who are victims of undesirable behaviour on campus”, the confidential counsellors wrote in their 2019 annual report. “We suspect that the problem is more widespread than we are seeing.” They therefore called for research into transgressive behaviour among students. They repeated this call in the annual report of 2020.

Research confirms suspicion

Investigation by EM shows that the problem is indeed much bigger than the university is aware of, at least when it comes to sexual harassment. In a survey conducted amongst almost 300 students, two out of three students indicated that they have had sexually transgressive experiences since starting their studies at Erasmus University. Almost half of these students have experienced such behaviour from fellow students or a lecturer.

However, only a small percentage of students report it to the university, for instance to a confidential counsellor, study advisor or to a student psychologist. Of the students who reported that they had been subjected to sexual penetration or oral sex against their will, 80 percent did not report it; in the case of other forms of sexually transgressive behaviour, more than 90 percent did not report it.

There are many ways that people overstep the sexual boundaries of others. 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.

“This research confirms what we had already suspected”, says Debra Young, one of the main confidential counsellors at Erasmus University. “Sexually transgressive behaviour is rife and often goes unreported. You also saw this with The Voice. It’s no different among staff and students at the university.”

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Shame and low expectations

Students have all kinds of reasons not to report sexually transgressive behaviour. Shame plays a major role for students who report that they have experienced non-consensual penetration, as does the feeling that they were partly responsible. “Reporting it means that you accept that you have been raped”, says one ESE student for instance. “I’m not prepared for that yet, at least not openly.”

The expectations that students have when it comes to reporting incidents are low. ‘I didn’t think it would help’ is one of the most frequently cited reasons for not reporting any form of sexual harassment. Students who do report it are sometimes disappointed in the way it is handled. “Nothing was done about it”, writes a student about their report to a confidential counsellor which concerned non-consensual penetration. “And that’s impossible too, because there are no eyewitnesses or actual physical evidence. I would very much like to see the person who did it prosecuted and punished, but I will not start an endless procedure without a resolution. That would cause me a lot of harm, with no good coming out of it.”

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Sanctions are tricky

“It gives me the shivers, these kinds of cases – we should be ashamed of ourselves”, says associate professor Daphne van de Bongardt. She is involved with the Erasmus Love Lab and does research on romantic relationships and the sexual well-being of young people. “We need to take these types of reports much more seriously.” She wonders aloud what the benefits of reporting in this manner are for students. “It may even have mostly disadvantages for them at the moment. If you have plucked up all your courage to go to someone with what you went through and nothing is done about it, my goodness. You start to doubt yourself; you feel ashamed, you get the idea that it might not be taken seriously.”

This is not only the case at Erasmus University, Van de Bongardt emphasises, but something she sees everywhere. “The police have been working for years on how they should deal with these kinds of reports. A few years ago, there were also very bitter stories about what you have to go through if you want to report a rape. That has fortunately improved.”

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.

Seksueel grensoverschrijdend gedrag meldingen studenten themaweek 2 – Elzeline Kooy
Image credit: Elzeline Kooy

Martin Blok, coordinator of the confidential counsellors’ network and together with Young, one of the main confidential counsellors at the EUR, also recognises this pattern of low expectations. “Students often expect a confidential counsellor to resolve their case, but we can’t do that. We can listen, stand by you, support you and refer you or assist you in the follow-up that takes place, but we are unable to take much action.” This sometimes leads to disappointment in the further handling of a report, when it comes to the punishment, or when sanctions fail to be imposed. Despite this, Young and Blok insist that it is still important to report what has happened to you. “Together with the confidential counsellor, you look at what kind of follow-up you would like to see after your report, without making any value judgements. For some people, being able to tell what happened to them is already an important step towards coming to terms with it”, Blok notes.

The number of sanctions that a university can impose is limited. Then you are referring to warnings, a temporary suspension or a temporary campus ban and in exceptional cases, expulsion from the university, Young explains. Blok points out that even among the staff members responsible for this, there is often not enough knowledge about what the university can do when sexual harassment is reported. “A programme director or a dean can already do a lot. For example, they can make sure that students are no longer seated in the same lecture hall. And a dean can set up a small committee to conduct an investigation and has the authority to impose sanctions. But the protocols and responsibilities are not clear at all faculties.”

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Not bad enough or normalised?

Some of the students who indicated sexually transgressive experiences do not see the point in reporting them. For example, because an incident took place off campus, on a night out or in a student house. Yet there is definitely still a role for the university here, Blok believes. “Imagine that something happens between two students on a Saturday night when they go out. If they then bump into each other on campus or in the lecture hall, that can feel very intimidating or unsafe.”

A lot of students say that they did not think their experience was bad enough to report to the university. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. It was something I didn’t want to do, but we were both intoxicated and he didn’t mean anything bad by it”, explains a second-year student as an example. An RSM student felt no need to report an incident of inappropriate touching in a student house. “I confronted the person myself that same night and again when we were both sober.” Not every sexually transgressive experience is seen as a problem by students.

In part, this is because some forms of transgressive behaviour, such as inappropriate touching, have become normalised. “Touching without consent happens so frequently, too often to count or report”, writes a first-year Economics student. “It happens so often that it doesn’t feel like it’s worth reporting. In fact, it happens to everyone I know when we go out”, adds an RSM student. An ESSB student agrees: “Every woman or girl experiences this. Reporting it somewhere doesn’t feel like an option, because it is the norm that this is something that just happens.”

Lack of awareness

Visibility and awareness also play a role. Part of the students who do not report it, give as their reason that they did not know where to go with their story. Few students know where they can go to within the university if they have experienced sexual harassment, the EM survey revealed. One in three students who completed the questionnaire knows where to find a confidential counsellor. Only 12 percent know where to report sexually transgressive behaviour and only 7 percent know where to file an official complaint.

“There is clearly work to be done”, says Van de Bongardt. “It reflects a certain organisational culture and social norms and values. We consider a lot of transgressive behaviour to be a grey area, there is a bit of haggling, and things are mainly settled informally. As a result, what is OK and what is not OK is not explicitly expressed. More public information, professionalisation and monitoring are needed.”

In the United States, for example, situations are escalated to official reports and complaints procedures at a much earlier stage, Van de Bongardt observes. “Of course, there is also a culture of suing behind this that is not necessarily worth pursuing. However, it is clearer.” Confidential counsellor Blok also sees that foreign universities often have much more clearer protocols on sexually transgressive behaviour. “Especially at universities where many students live on campus. There, confidential counsellors, psychologists, social workers and student life officers are all involved. Here, it’s a bit of an underrated issue under that euphemistic umbrella of undesirable behaviour.”

Students do talk about it

The low number of reports does not necessarily mean that students are unable to tell their story, Blok believes. He sees a difference between Dutch and international students. Many of the reports made to the confidential counsellors come from international students. “That is partly because they don’t have their own network here. In that sense, they are more vulnerable than Dutch students. They can perhaps share their story more easily elsewhere.”

This is also evident from the survey conducted by EM. Most students who have been subjected to sexually transgressive behaviour talk about it, usually with friends, a partner, fellow student or a housemate.

Why it is important to report incidents

Nevertheless, it is important to report these incidents say the experts and confidential counsellors. Young understands that students are reluctant to report what happened to them when they feel nothing will be done. “But if you don’t report it, nothing will be done about it in any event.” Moreover, she believes that making such reports helps in gaining insight into the problem and in policy making.

“We need to have all those different types of sexually transgressive experiences that our students have been through in sight”, Van de Bongardt concurs. “All of these things are not okay. Some forms are even legally punishable. It is important to recognise that this happens. Taking reports seriously contributes to transparency and visibility. And proper intervention procedures afterwards also contribute to prevention.” The more attention sexually transgressive behaviour is given, the clearer it is for students and the entire EUR community what is and what is not acceptable.

Blok also believes that there is work to be done. “A network of confidential counsellors only takes care of the service desk. However, much can still be gained from what happens before and behind that service desk. For example, the university has committed itself to the Amnesty International manifesto to combat sexual violence among students. Among other things, it states that the university must offer training about consent. It is absolutely essential that there is more awareness and education on this subject.”

Erasmus University has adopted an action plan to combat sexual violence among students. Its aim is to help students talk about equality, free will and mutual consent when it comes to sex. For example, workshops and training sessions will be organised for students this year on topics such as bystanders, toxic masculinity and giving and asking consent. There will also be an awareness campaign on campus and during the Eureka week. The confidential counsellors will, for example, organise a training course for Eureka week guides, so that they know what to do when they see transgressive behaviour during the introductory period. Furthermore, the university is working on a central reporting point where students and employees can report undesirable behaviour. Read the full response from Rector Magnificus Annelien Bredenoord here.

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.