All students in the survey consider non-consensual penetration to be transgressive behaviour. The same applies to oral sex, kissing and touching without consent. In addition, students believe that catcalling on the street (86 percent) and deliberately touching someone else’s bottom, breasts or crotch in a bar (96 percent) is also transgressive behaviour. Repeatedly making comments about someone’s appearance and repeatedly making sexual references and jokes are also unacceptable, according to 80 percent of the students.

Broad definition

Students tend to have a broad definition of what sexually transgressive behaviour is. This is the conclusion drawn by assistant professor Samira van Bohemen, a researcher at the Erasmus Love Lab. Of the 23 behaviours studied in the survey, ranging from non-consensual penetration to sexually tinged jokes, students ticked the boxes across the whole spectrum. Only types of behaviour directed towards their own partner aren’t considered transgressive, such as sexually tinged comments (9 percent) and sending sexually explicit photos and videos (4 percent). On some behaviours there is slightly less consensus. Around four in ten students consider kissing or touching without the explicit consent of both parties to be transgressive.

“I have the idea that this generation of students has a much broader view on sexual harassment than, for example, my generation”, says Van Bohemen. According to her, this is partly due to developments in society, like the #metoo movement. “Such movements have woken people up to the fact that even minor forms of undesirable behaviour, such as sexually tinged jokes or comments about your sexuality, constitute transgressive behaviour.”

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Nevertheless, some students still find it tricky to define boundaries. “I find the term rather vague and context-dependent”, says an RSM student. An ESHCC student agrees. “It depends very much on the situation. All of my friends are gay, we joke about it among ourselves all the time. Of course, that’s completely different to when a stranger – or even a lecturer – makes an inappropriate comment.”

Acquaintances versus strangers

Students make a distinction between behaviour towards people they know (friends and acquaintances) and towards strangers. The better you know someone, the more the line starts to blur. This is especially noticeable in online behaviour. Four out of ten students consider sending sexually explicit photos or videos to people they know a no-go. This percentage is higher where strangers are concerned: 90 percent consider sending lewd photos and videos to strangers to be transgressive in nature.

This is only logical, says associate professor Daphne van de Bongardt, who researches romantic relationships and sexuality in young people at the Erasmus Love Lab. “The interpersonal relationship is so important in these types of experiences. If a stranger touches you in a tram, then that is very clearly transgressive behaviour. You don’t have any past history between you to cast doubt on that. But the closer someone is to you, the more complicated it gets. Especially if there has already been an intimate aspect in your relationship with that person.”

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.

Verbal versus non-verbal consent

All students think that it is not acceptable to insist on or carry on with sexual acts if the other person has indicated that they do not want to. Yet, only six out of ten students believe that explicit consent should be required. Not all students feel the need for explicit consent: 42 percent, in fact, feel that non-verbal communication about consent to sex is just as clear as verbal communication. “I don’t think verbal consent to sex is necessary if the whole mood and body posture shows that the other person wants it too”, reasons a master’s student from Erasmus MC. An ESL student: “Checking seems pointless to me if the other person obviously wants to go further.”

Sex is admittedly largely non-verbal, says Van de Bongardt, but in her opinion verbal consent clears up a lot of misunderstandings. “Of course, a consent form doesn’t need to be signed, nevertheless explicit communication about sex helps to prevent any miscommunication. We need to discuss with young people how to make this ‘sexy’, because this is something that they do need.”

Such miscommunication was the case with this RSM student: “After non-consensual penetration, I immediately spoke to my partner about it. He reacted totally shocked and said that he didn’t realise that I did not want it. In a way, that made me feel even more guilty, but afterwards, we made very clear agreements about consent. Since then, we have always checked in with each other verbally before initiating any sex. We also do this while we are having sex too and even afterwards. So, I do feel that talking to each other about this has had positive consequences.”

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Assuming responsibility

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

Mirthe Verbeek is doing her PhD research on the effectiveness of educational programmes for boys on sexually transgressive behaviour. She finds it interesting to compare the attitudes of female and male students about checking in with each other and signalling their own boundaries. More than half of the male students (65 percent) think that the other person themselves should give a clear indication that they do not want sex. This percentage is lower among female students (28 percent). Women are also more adamant that you should be proactive in checking whether the other person wants to keep on going.

These differences, according to Verbeek, have to do with role patterns that are ascribed to women and men regarding sexual behaviour. “Men are expected to be in the mood for sex often and to proactively seek it out. Women are expected to be passive and wait for someone else to take the initiative.” Women are as such assigned the role of ‘gatekeeper’. “Because of these role patterns, the burden of responsibility is not placed on the person who initiates sex. At the same time, women are expected not to express themselves too explicitly sexually, which can make guarding that gate rather difficult.”

We learn these role patterns from an early age, for instance due to stereotypes in the media or through people around us. This remains a persistent pattern of thought, says Verbeek. “Education on sexuality is therefore still offered more often to girls than to boys. And this despite the fact that boys can also learn a lot, for instance, about recognising signals, communicating desires and boundaries, and about how to make sex pleasurable for both partners.”

Honest mistakes

The fact that being able to recognise desires and boundaries is difficult is also evident from the experiences that students in the survey have had.  A third of the students have even occasionally been unsure as to whether or not they had crossed someone else’s boundaries.

An ESSB master’s student recounts his experience of over ten years ago: “While we were kissing, I would repeatedly go to places with my hands and she would push them away again. Time after time, I kept trying to go further. I think I did this because the pressure I felt to have sex was probably stronger than my interest for the feelings of the person I was with. At the time, I also had the feeling that it was just part of the game. That this was kind of the normal dynamic between a young man and woman, that the man has to persuade the woman.”

The stereotypical male-female image is also evident in the experience of a third-year ESHCC student: “We women have never learned to respect men’s boundaries when it comes to sex. I only realised recently how I assumed that men always want sex. I’m trying to unlearn that assumption and have conversations with my current partner to make sure that I’ m not forcing him to have sex with me against his will.”

Sex is complicated, says Van de Bongardt. And often transgressive behaviour happens because the person doing it doesn’t know where someone’s boundaries lie. “How are you supposed to know that if you haven’t been properly taught how to be in a sexual relationship, and that someone else’s experiences, desires and boundaries can be very different from your own?”, she says. “A good rule of thumb is to check with every partner what the other person wants each time. If you don’t do that, then sometimes you can make a mistake.”

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Confront someone about their behaviour

More than a third of the respondents (35 percent) have confronted someone at one time or another about that person’s sexually transgressive behaviour. The person who is reprimanded often reacts defensively, the students say. “Especially with a sense of indignation: ‘ ‘Cause then you can’t do anything anymore’ or ‘it’s just a joke“, states an ESSB  master’s student. For another student, a friendship ended after they confronted a friend. But this is not always something that is taken the wrong way. An ESHCC student admonished someone at a party for touching her upper leg. “He understood me and apologised.”

A third-year ESSB student once confronted someone who touched the buttocks of a girl whom he knew. “It did call for some aggression on my part, but it ended well. He apologised, even though that came with a lot of ‘yes, buts’.”

According to Verbeek, the motivation to confront someone about sexually transgressive behaviour is based on the perception of control over the outcome. “That is to say: whether you think it is worthwhile to confront someone about what happened. And if you have spoken to someone, will the behaviour actually stop, or will it be trivialised with something like ‘It’s just a joke’? It can create a feeling of powerlessness and a loss of motivation to do it again, if you notice that there is no point in calling someone to account.

For this reason, according to Van de Bongardt, we must have clear agreements in place as a community about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. “The university can, for example, already start with clear communication on undesirable behaviour during Eureka week, which informs students of what constitutes sexually transgressive behaviour and what sanctions are imposed if you cross those boundaries. Together, we can make the EUR a safe and comfortable place for everyone.”

Action plan

The university recently signed an Amnesty International manifesto to combat sexual violence amongst students. An action plan has also been drawn up, aimed at raising awareness among students and professionalising the handling of reports. “We are keen to have a conversation with students about consent: What is consent? How do you treat each other? How do you give consent and ask for it?”, says Gwen de Bruin of the Diversity and Inclusion Office, who was closely involved in drawing up the action plan. “But also, about where you can go to at the university if something has happened.”

Included in the action plan are training sessions for and discussions with students. “We want to start during Eureka week with a campaign about how we treat each other and where you can report transgressive behaviour. We’d like to make use of every occasion where we run into students”, De Bruin explains.

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.