The Collective Responsibility to Fight Against a Culture of Sexual Violence from the Ground Up

Written by Nelli Eveliina Naukkarinen

April is sexual assault awareness month. During this month we discuss and educate ourselves that sexual harassment, assault and violence can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time. Often when we discuss sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct, it’s discussed in spaces of professionalism (like work), discussing power imbalances, what are appropriate discussions to have with our co-workers or with our superior. While these conversations are incredibly important, as eight in ten women experience sexual harassment in their workplace in their lifetime, what is often very under-discussed, however, is the importance of creating a safe space and a safe environment in schools, especially at the university level.

One in twenty students report getting sexually assaulted when in university. 11% of Dutch female students report being raped during their studies, while this number is around 1% for men. It is a phenomenon so common that it has a name, the red zone, which refers to the time period from a university introductory week to the first few months or weeks in university that has been dubbed as the most dangerous week to be a student. You are then most likely to be sexually assaulted or harassed. So, a university can be a space where a lot of students are subjected to different forms of sexual violence to very high levels. But it is not just in university introduction weeks or classrooms where this happens, but also in student associations and organizations. The Netherlands has a very big presence of sororities, fraternities and student organizations and associations. Leiden has around six sororities and fraternities, around ten or more student association ranging in size, and lots of different cultural unions, clubs and so on.

Us students can probably – from the top of our heads – name a few organizations, may it be the big ones for the entire study politics or smaller ones for specific faculties. The amount of student as members for these organizations is also quite large, some having over a thousand members . I myself have been part of a number of different student organizations, and am currently part of the CIROS The Hague student organization, acting as a committee head, so I know first-hand how many people are involved in the internal workings of different student associations. I am not saying I (as someone who has been and is a working member of a study association) know any better than any board, or that I am of some higher moral or ethical stand. Simply, what I wish to communicate with this article, is to raise awareness and discussion, on what I see as the collective responsibility of student associations, clubs and organizations to take a clear stance on the importance of proper code of conduct in student environments.

As I have discussed in my other articles and in this article, the prelevance of sexual violence is massive. One in twenty students report getting sexually assaulted when in university, 62% of female college students report being sexually harassed, ranging from being harassed by fellow students, strangers or even school professionals. As much as 80% of sexual offenses such as rape and sexual assault goes unreported. The statistics can go on and on, but the underlying issue stays the same. We, as a society have created a culture where sexual-based violence is overlooked. The majority of sexual assault victims do not come forward because they are scared. They are scared of being victim blamed by their loved ones and community, they are scared of not being listened to and understood by the justice system, or being re-victimized again in the justice system, and they are also scared of the social stigma and pressure we put on victims of sexual based violence.

The way the discussion in today’s society about sexual violence is set up is often dismissive and far too surface level. In a previous article, I discussed the systematic dismissal and victim blaming of sexual violence victims, discussing how different levels of institutions tend to disregard the potential life-changing impact sexual violence can have on someone. It is an event that will potentially have a life-long impact on someone. The prevalent culture of victim blaming we are fostering as a society, needs to change, and this is where the collective responsibility of students come in.

Change often starts from the bottom up and starts with individuals. We have seen throughout history that the change in attitudes we have against marginalized groups of people, discrimination, and gender-based or sexual violence has come from different organizations working to advocate for the better treatment and a better understanding of these issues in society. Organizations are important places where to set and change norms, be it your place of employment, school or a student organization. Like in other aspects of society, there are certain norms and codes of conduct we expect of people. Social norms become so due to the fact that we as a collective agree it is wrong and that we should do something about it.

Therefore, I am urging student associations, clubs, and organizations as norm setters, to not just take a clear stance on educating people on proper code of conduct, but holding people accountable when it comes to behavioural misconduct. Law is born out of social norms. We as a society agree that some social norms need to be codified into law, as they are so bad that people need to not just be socially discouraged from carrying out the acts, but actually to be held accountable for their actions. Therefore, I think it is very important for different student associations, organizations and clubs to include into their policies a clear stance on the appropriate code of conduct and the consequences which would follow if regulations are not heeded.

This is incredibly important as we consider how common it is that sexual-based violence happens in universities, and how common sexual harassment and assault are in general. Just as in workplaces where employees are required to go under code of conduct and discrimination training, I think it is very important that student associations need to start working on creating a similar environment.

We have seen it even in the Leiden University community. It is an issue that exist in every place – sexual-based violence does not discriminate based on location. Remember, sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual advantages, requests, comments and gestures made towards a person or a group. Sexual assault, on the other hand, is sexual contact without the explicit consent of the victim. Therefore, the student community needs to take a stance, as a norm setter, that sexual harassment and sexual violence of any kind are not welcome. We all need to recognize that the culture of victim blaming we have created as a society starts to change when we start addressing our own faults, and start recognizing that we need to stop fostering and allowing it to exist. As with sexism, for example, blatant sexist acts need to be called out – to make people understand why what they are saying wrong, and to educate them on why they are wrong, so they can hopefully understand and change their mindset, and recognize that sexism should be against norms of society. We need to demand organization such as universities and student spaces to start to take sexual harassment and assault seriously by providing education, policies and concrete attempts to change the environment we exist in to be more understanding and hard-line on sexual violence. Universities need to start providing discussions on sexual harassment and violence that are not solely based on victim-blaming narratives where they tell you what to do for you to be safe. While being safe is, of course, incredibly important, change in attitudes and norms do not change overnight. Once people understand why sexual harassment and violence are so inherently wrong, then concrete consequences to instances of misbehaviour can be formulated.

We have seen it over and over again in politics, the workplace and so on, how powerful men who have a history of sexual violence escape accountability. This ranges from Supreme Court justice Bret Kavanaugh to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the world has shown them time and time again, that they can subject people to violence and harassment, and not be held accountable.

This has to stop being the norm in society. We need to start taking steps to change the way we treat sexual harassment and misconduct from the very start. As weeds need to be taken from the root to kill them, our approach to sexual misconduct should be the same. Education, prevention, and intervention has to start early on. Given how common it is in university environments, we need to start addressing the problem there so it also does lead people that who violate others continue to do by getting away with.

Again, change does not happen overnight. I am not expecting that students and student organizations implementing harsher punishments for someone who shows behavioural misconduct can “fix” rape culture. However, change has to start from somewhere, and we all need to collectively recognise our responsibility to start addressing the issue so that we impact it in the long run. Organizations, clubs and associations and collectives of students have more power than an individual student. They can reach and influence sometimes up to thousands of people. Therefore, it is time for those who can take concrete stances on this issue to do so. Just reposting posts on sexual violence on April is not enough. Slacktivism is not enough for those who can actually implement change within their circle, even if it is small. When we start addressing the behaviour and having consequences for this behaviour, we can start changing the general attitude of society on behavioural misconduct.

Edited by Karolina Hajna, artwork by Lena Cohen-Zennou