Home is not always safe

Lieke was sexually harassed by two roommates

Ongewenst gedrag in studentenhuis
Photo: Shutterstock. Illustration: DUB

Lieke* lived for two years in a student house in Zeist that was actually very fun and close-knit. She shared the house with ten roommates who spent a lot of time together and even quarantined together during Covid. Nevertheless, she decided to terminate her rental contract last summer, after two separate housemates sexually harassed her. 

The first incident occurred a few months after she'd moved in, when a new roommate arrived.  “The moment he moved in, he was very flirty and tried to interact with me all the time. One night, we were both drunk and he started touching me in places I didn’t really want him to touch.” She says it was hard for her to realise that his behaviour was unacceptable. She talked to the other roommates about the issue, who advised her to talk to him, but Lieke didn’t want to do that. “He had a girlfriend then, so I was a bit scared of how he would react. Fortunately, he moved out soon after that, but I felt weird for a couple of months.”

Drama queen
A year and a half later, Lieke once again felt that a roommate's behaviour was inappropriate. This time it was a guy who had been living in the house for quite a while, and who was a good friend of hers. “Every time he was turned on or we were drunk or we took drugs, he would tell me that he wanted to do stuff with me, but at other times it was as though I didn’t exist to him. Due to my past experience, I had a hard time dealing with this constant alternation. I felt like a piece of meat, especially when he touched me or made inappropriate comments about my body.”

Once again, she discussed her experiences with her housemates, but she says they basically ignored her. “Most of them remained friends with both of us and tried to keep peace in the house,” Lieke recollects. “They told me it wasn’t that bad. They didn’t want to believe me and acted as if I were some kind of drama queen, which made me start questioning my own experiences and feelings.” In the end, Lieke broke off her friendship with the guy and started looking for a new place to live. Two months later, she still hadn't found anything, so she decided to terminate her rental contract and move back with her parents.

Lack of support
Lieke is far from being the only one going through things like this. According to a recent survey conducted by the Dutch National Student Association (Dutch acronym: ISO), nine percent of students in the Netherlands are the target of sexual misconduct. One-third of these cases are physical. Many victims do not report the incident: they often tell themselves it wasn't serious enough. Others do not know where to report it and, when they do, they have too little trust that an institution will actually do something about it.

Lieke, too, didn't feel as though she could turn to the student housing corporation to help her with her complaints. “They did not have a specific registration point for sensitive incidents like sexual harassment. It would have been nice if they stated on their website that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable or if they had some kind of protocol that I could have used for guidance.”

Even so, she did get in touch with SSH when she decided to leave the house. She wanted to shed some light onto the issue and see whether the organisation could help her find a new room to rent. Since that didn't work and her housemates were unsupportive, she decided to contact DUB. “I would like for me and other people who have been through this kind of thing to be heard,” she explains.

Evict the perpetrators
According to Beate Völker, Professor in City Sociology at UU and Director of the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (Dutch acronym: NSCR), institutions like student housing providers and student associations should have clear guidelines on how to counsel potential victims. “Having a helpdesk, a confidential counselor, or protocols against sexual misconduct is something that conveys that the organisation doesn’t accept this kind of behaviour,” she says. After all, these measures give victims the opportunity to tell their story and ask for advice, not to mention they give a clear signal to potential perpetrators that sexual harassment and abuse will not be tolerated. It shows that the organisations are prepared to intervene and sometimes even evict perpetrators.  

SSH does not have a specific instance where tenants can report sexual harassment but students having conflicts with their housemates are encouraged to come forward, according to spokesperson Madelon van Gameren, who states that the housing provider has a team specialised in general disturbances that can go and talk to the perpetrator if the victim so wishes. “We look for the best approach on a case-by-case basis, together with the notifier. In some cases, the solution is allocating the alleged perpetrator elsewhere. We are also closely in touch with the neighbourhood, the local police officer, and the police.” Van Gameren can’t comment on Lieke’s specific case because DUB promised the student not to reveal her identity. She adds that SSH is not able or willing to tell how often they receive complaints about sexual harassment. "The line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour isn't always clear, it's not black and white, so we cannot and do not want to share any figures on this."

Avoid domestic conflicts
The housing corporation can be an important link in the chain but roommates may play an even larger part in preventing and resolving sexual abuse, observes Professor Völker. Usually, ignoring problematic behaviour is not a good solution for the victim, as evidenced by Lieke’s experience, although she says she sees where roommates are coming from when they do this. "As a flatmate, friend or acquaintance, you're required to take a stand and start a conflict that carries emotional risk. The relationship with that roommate is put under pressure and you risk that person not wanting to have anything to do with you anymore. Some have a good relationship with the perpetrator or with a friend of the perpetrator, which explains why they often prefer to avoid such conflicts. That’s why the surrounding social network tends to intervene very late."

In the case of a close-knit group of flatmates with a lot of relationships, such as Lieke’s, there is a lot at stake, so the chances of housemates doing nothing and remaining indifferent are actually quite high, says Völker. “If the social network is more extensive, more relationships are put under pressure, so there is a higher risk of the conflict escalating.” As an added risk, close-knit groups of roommates sometimes don't have a larger social network outside the house. “Therefore, when fights break out within the house, this forces them to build an entirely new social network.”

According to Völker, it is important to create a shared feeling of trust to prevent relationships from breaking up or housemates from sweeping sexual misconduct under the rug. “They should feel as though they can talk about sexual abuse.” The victim should be able to speak up to the group and potential perpetrators should know that, if they do anything of that sort, their act will have consequences and they will be confronted about it.

Lieke must admit that her advice for students in a comparable situation is a bit depressing. “Move out. You could wait or try to approach SSH but, in the end, it all depends on how your roommates react, whether they take you seriously. Besides, I don’t think it’s wise to advise victims to sit down and talk to the perpetrator as that is easier said than done.”

After moving back in with her parents, Lieke took a break from the university for a year. Upon resuming her studies in Veterinary Medicine, she realised she was depressed. “I was dog-tired every day, cried a lot, and could sleep for twelve hours easily.” She is still searching for a place with fewer roommates and is looking forward to graduating and starting her professional career. “Student life was not the best for me, to be honest.”

*Lieke is not the student's actual name. DUB's editors know her real identity.