What we wanted to know

One in ten female students in the Netherlands has been a victim of rape during her time as a student, according to a study conducted last year by I&O Research on behalf of Amnesty International. But what other experiences with sexually transgressive behaviour have students had to deal with? And how often does this happen in student life or at university?

The overstepping of sexual boundaries is not just about experiences, it is also about behaviour, attitudes, shared values and context. What do students find transgressive? How do they view and talk about consent?

Furthermore, the university also has a role in this. But what is that role exactly? Sexually transgressive behaviour does happen between students. Sometimes it takes place on campus, but very often it doesn’t. And even if something disturbing happens between students on a night out or in a student house, these students may still run into each other in the lecture hall. What do students expect here? Do they know how to find the right services and procedures?

What do we mean by sexually transgressive experiences?

Mutual consent, free will and equality are all needed for positive sexual interaction, says the Rutgers knowledge centre in a white paper entitled ‘Seksuele grensoverschrijding en seksueel geweld’ (Sexual Transgression and Sexual Violence). If at least one of those three things is absent, then you can consider it as sexual transgression.

We tried to gauge this by asking respondents whether they had ever had penetration or oral sex against their will, had been touched inappropriately or been exposed to offensive verbal or digital sexually-tinged comments, jokes or images since they started studying at Erasmus University. They were able to tick twelve different types of experiences and were asked follow-up questions about the way it happened, who did it, where it happened, whether there was any pressure or coercion involved, and who they talked to about it.

Some students have justifiably pointed out that this list is not exhaustive and that sexually transgressive behaviour is sometimes more complex. Stalking, for example, is not on the list, even though it often has a sexual component.

You can view the questionnaire that we used for this survey here:

Survey sexual harassment – English questionnaire

Why does the investigation only concern students?

Because it had to be defined in some way. Of course, sexually transgressive behaviour also occurs amongst staff. Regular attention is paid to undesirable behaviour on the work floor and on the dependent relationships that PhD students have with their study supervisors. This is also the subject of research in surveys among PhD students or employee surveys.

No such research had yet been done for students at Erasmus University. Confidential counsellors do keep track of how many students report sexual transgression to them, but they themselves believe that they do not know how often transgressive behaviour actually occurs. In the annual reports of 2019 and 2020, the confidential counsellors consequently called for research into undesirable behaviour among students.

Who filled out the questionnaire?

A total of 293 students filled out the questionnaire between 24 March and 10 April. The respondents are spread across all faculties. One in three respondents is a master’s student, the rest are bachelor’s students. One in three respondents is an international student. That is slightly above the figure for all students. Female students are overrepresented in the survey. Women make up 66 percent of the respondents, compared to the 55 percent who make up the total of EUR students. The same probably applies to LGBTQ+ students, although this is difficult to tell as it is not known what proportion of students belongs to the LGBTQ+ community. This overrepresentation may mean that sexually transgressive incidents are reported in the survey more often, as other studies have shown that women and LGBTQ+ individuals tend to report transgressive incidents more often. At the same time, we do not see any significant differences with the results on similar questions in previous research among students, such as the ones conducted by Maastricht University and Amnesty International.

Why we are cautious with terms like rape, perpetrator and victim

In the Amnesty research, more than half of the students who were subjected to rape did not consider it to be rape. They have all sorts of reasons for this, which are partly to do with public perception and also very often with the context it took place in. Therefore, the term rape does not do justice to the experience for everyone. This does not mean that we do not consider non-consensual penetration to be rape, but that we are careful when it comes to using the label.

A similar approach applies to terms such as perpetrator and victim. Someone who has been through a sexually transgressive experience is often depicted as a victim, even though they do not always see themselves that way. Nor does transgressive behaviour always have detrimental consequences. Or sometimes situations surrounding sexually transgressive behaviour are unclear. For example, someone may feel that they have clearly expressed that they do not want something, but the other person has not picked up on those signals. In all of these kinds of situations, is it a case of a perpetrator and a victim? Again, this does not mean that the experience or behaviour is not transgressive, but it does mean that words such as perpetrator and victim do not do justice, or do not do justice entirely, to all situations. For this reason, we have tried to avoid such terms as much as possible, unless students use them themselves.

With thanks to

Several experts have been involved in this research from the outset. We could not have done this without them. Daphne van de Bongardt and Samira van Bohemen of the Erasmus Love Lab, Gwen de Bruijn and Helen Tibboel of the Diversity & Inclusion Office and confidential counsellor Martin Blok have contributed to the content, the methodology, the formulation of the questions or the interpretation of the findings. EM editor Elmer Smaling has helped with the analysis of the results.

Do you have any questions about the research or the choices we have made? Then please email EM editors Feba Sukmana ([email protected])  or Tim Ficheroux ([email protected]).