When they had to do research for an assignment, Ann-Awen Quenet, Jeanne Gachet, Renee Verhoeven, Emma Leeuwenhoek, Julie Dewaerheijd and Ellen Burghardt immediately knew that they wanted sexual harassment to be the topic. “Three of us are Dutch, and they came up with the idea of looking into student societies”, says Ann-Awen.
As internationals, Ann-Awen, Julie and Jeanne didn’t know the student societies. Julie: “I thought: OK, that doesn’t sound very exciting. I didn’t think we’d find anything interesting. But, my god, I was so wrong!”
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No immediate action
In their research, they found that members who had experienced sexual harassment often downplay that experience. And they don’t usually take immediate action by reporting it. “They don’t want to be known as someone who has had an unpleasant experience”, says Ellen. However, it’s a different story if their friends have had the experience. “Then they become more assertive; they feel that they need to support their friends.”
Although the associations have a formal complaints procedure for unwanted behaviour, the female members prefer not to go through official channels. They are concerned about their reputation. “They find it difficult to show that they are vulnerable and don’t want to make trouble for anyone. And they also don’t want it to become known that they were the reason why a fellow student was expelled from the association”, Ellen explains.
Instead, they use gossip to exclude someone or to warn people. “You find that they prefer to act behind closed doors, which is fascinating. As if they think: I’ll sort it myself, because no one else will.”
Laugh it off
Most student societies have a confidential advisor who members can contact if they encounter unwanted behaviour. “Not all students that we interviewed knew this and most didn’t use them”, says Ann-Awen. “This shows that sexual harassment is not discussed satisfactorily in the associations. That the possibilities for getting help are not clearly communicated.”
There is also very little dialogue between male and female members about unwanted sexual behavior. “When women talk about it, the male members tend to laugh it off. It isn’t taken seriously, boys joke about it and change the subject”, says Julie. “So female members avoid the discussion because they aren’t taken seriously.”
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The closed culture in the associations doesn’t help either, says Julie. “According to our respondents, a lot of unacceptable behaviour takes place during hazing or association rituals. And they are explicitly told that what happens in the association must stay in the association.”
Often the female members try to justify sexual harassment by blaming alcohol. “They say: he didn’t mean it; he did it because he was drunk. Or: it happened because I was drunk, so it wasn’t all his fault”, says Ann-Awen.
For this research, they interviewed twelve female members from four Rotterdam student associations. At the start of each interview, they asked the respondents what unacceptable sexual behaviour means. “Interestingly, they all have the same definition, namely all behaviour that crosses your boundaries, from the way they were looked at or sexual innuendos to assault or sex without consent”, says Ellen.
They only interviewed female members because they wanted to highlight their perspective. “Although we were also interested in the stories of the male members, we were worried that they would give more socially desirable answers”, Ellen explains. “We wanted to put aside the male perspective and focus on the experience of women.”
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Easier than they thought
Was it difficult to find female members who were willing to talk about it? Julie: “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Once we found one person, that led to more contacts. And then the ball started rolling. And we’re students too, so when we were out and about, we met many fellow students who were members of an association.”
Ann-Awen adds: “It was probably easier to do the research and the interviews because we are women and their peers. Because we understand each other, they felt freer and safe to share their stories.”