Dean Inge Hutter, student counsellor Martin Blok, confidential adviser Debra Young and PhD student Brenda Rodríguez Cortés welcome new students to the aula of the ISS Building on Thursday. Rows of white chairs stand ready for the participants, the PowerPoint presentation displays the photos of the people involved in the workshops – with their desired pronoun after their name.
On their arrival, students are given two identical sheets of paper stating ‘Declaration for a Safe and Inclusive ISS’. These contain agreements such as ‘work to create a safe space in which we can be vulnerable, honest and open with each other’ and ‘refrain from bullying, discrimination or intimidation, whatever form these take’. Students are required to sign these agreements and to return them to student counsellor Blok. “You can take the other copy home with you and stick it on your fridge, so that it always reminds you of these agreements,” says Rodríguez Cortés, half-jokingly, to the participants.
As soon as all 140 students have taken their seats in the hall, Blok and Rodríguez Cortés begin explaining the workshops. “We began with a similar training course in 1992,” recounts Blok. “But we realised that the participants were people who either already knew a lot about the theme or were interested in it and hence were already aware of transgressive behaviour.”
The ISS wants all students to have a basic knowledge of this theme, which is why the Institute makes the workshops mandatory. Students receive one credit for the series. “There are several universities that offer similar workshops, but we’re the only faculty to makes this mandatory and part of the curriculum. However, a student protest was needed last year to convince the management that these workshops really are worth the effort,” says Blok with a wink. “Of course, we hope that the rest of EUR will now follow in our footsteps.”
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Important to report things
Rodríguez Cortés follows up with a description of what steps students can take if they experience transgressive behaviour. Students can contact one of the confidential counsellors, who can give advice and support students if they wish to report an incident or require psychological help. “Even if you experience this outside the campus, you can still come to us. We’ll do our best to help,” she emphasises.
A student raises her hand: “But what should I do if it happens at the market? Should I drag along the perpetrator and bring them to you?” Student counsellor Blok explains that the focus is on coming to terms with an incident. “It always helps to talk about it afterwards, and we can also give advice on things that occur outside the university,” he says. Rodríguez Cortés adds: “Even if you experience a ‘minor incident’, it’s useful to report this because we then have it on record if things should escalate later.”
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What is consent?
Gabriella Thompson of the Our Bodies Our Voice foundation now takes the floor. For the following two hours, she provides a training session on consent: the issue is how you express and ask for agreement in social interaction. You can recognise consent on the basis of four elements: it is clear, it is coherent, it is willing and it is ongoing.
‘Clear’ means that no doubt is possible. “That’s why silence does not mean ‘yes’. Therefore, statements such as ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Maybe’ do not imply consent,” says Thompson. ‘Coherent’ means that someone who cannot make rational, sensible decisions cannot give consent. Someone who is asleep, for instance. Consent must be given voluntarily and it must be present at each step. “Suppose you become intimate with someone. He or she – or you – can always change their mind. So you need to regularly check whether it’s still okay for the other person,” she explains.
‘No’ is a complete sentence
Then, Thompson presents thirteen statements to which students are asked to respond, saying whether they agree or not: offering compliments to a stranger on the street is friendly (students mumble that it depends on the situation); receiving nudes is a form of compliment (a few grins here and there); it’s okay to kiss someone else if you’re in a relationship (students can no longer repress their laughter). A student on the right side of the hall raises her hand. “It might be an unpopular opinion, but as long as you and your partner agree that you can kiss someone else, it’s not a problem, is it? Of course, the person you’re kissing should also know that you have an open relationship.”
The following discussion is not only about sex but also touches on issues like alcohol consumption. “I don’t drink,” says one student. “But in my country, drinking is the only way to make friends. One time I gave in and drank together with colleagues, and dammit, I really did make friends quickly,” she recounts. “I find it so annoying that I always have to explain why I don’t drink.” Thompson nods understandingly. “Sometimes we forget that ‘no’ is a complete sentence. If someone says no, that’s it. You don’t need to ask them for the reasons.”
Student Conor Farrell feels the workshops are important for an international environment such as the ISS. “The students come from many parts of the world, with different norms and values. In order to create a safe environment, everyone needs to have the same basic knowledge.” He comes from the United States, where the MeToo movement originates. “But we lack courses like these in the US. Ten years ago, I took a training session about transgressive behaviour, but so much has changed since then, and so I’m glad the ISS is offering this.”
Students Smriti Sahni and Alexander Bijoux have also learned a lot from the workshop. “Especially about how you respect other people’s boundaries and set your own boundaries,” says Smriti. Alexander adds: “What I find interesting is the cultural differences among ISS students; naturally these play a role in how you interact with each other. I’m from Italy, for instance. We have much more physical contact there, such as giving people a kiss or a hug, compared to here in the Netherlands. This workshop has helped me become more aware that the Italian way of interacting isn’t automatically natural for people from other countries.”