Sexual harassment campaign: ‘He took off the condom without me noticing’
On the streets, at the bar, during an internship or at work: sexual harassment can happen anywhere. Sometimes without the perpetrator even realising it. “The numbers revealed by Amnesty International are much higher than what we’d been hearing in our environment,” says Laura Baartmans, who will be holding Veritas' presidency for the next two weeks. “That’s why we started this campaign. We want this issue to be addressed more often."
The campaign – which consists of posters, flyers, and an Instagram account – was launched during the introduction week (UIT). The posters carry the following messages: "No yes = no", "Silence isn’t consent" and "Don’t assume, always ask". Baartmans explains: “We want to tell students, especially the new ones, about the importance of knowing and indicating your boundaries. And talking about them.”
A necessary conversation, as sexual harassment is a big problem in Utrecht, according to Jochem Hoogenboom, spokesperson for the mayor. “This is a hot topic at the municipality. There’s a council letter coming up announcing new initiatives against sexual violence, on top of our recently established hotline to report street harassment”, Hoogenboom says. The hotline received 107 reports in the past two months.
Each report is approched individually. “Everyone who files a report and leaves their contact details receives a personal phone call. We then seek out the perpetrators and strive to effectively use the people we've got working in the places where the intimidation happened," says Hoogenboom. According to the municipality, 46 percent of Utrecht's residents experience street harassment. “That's unacceptable,” declares Hoogenboom.
It only makes me wonder if I'm next
Student Imme* (20) is one of them. “When I walk alone at night, I’ve usually got 112 typed in my phone already,” she says. “People talk to me or shout at me quite regularly. Once, a guy put his hand on my leg on the bus.” She’s too afraid to speak up when these things happen.
But it can get worse. Student Sofie (25) had someone reach under her skirt during a night out. “He really pushed his fingers towards my crotch. I went to the police right away, but they said they couldn’t do anything because I didn’t have any proof. And if I’d slapped the guy, I would’ve been the one arrested”. Three of Sofie's friends were raped in the past few years. “It only makes me wonder if I'm next." She has a rape whistle on her keychain. When walking alone at night, she always pays attention to whoever is on the street to decide whether they are safe to walk past or not.
But there are no sexual harassment stories among Veritas' members. “I don’t really know anyone who’s been through something like this,” says Baartmans. “It’s also a matter of shame, people are embarrassed to talk about it, so they don’t take action after being harassed.” Counsellors have been appointed within the association, and Baartmans hopes members will seek them in case any incidents happen. The association is also organising an annual awareness week, including a lecture about the Sexual Violence Centre in Utrecht.
Getting past shame is hard for victims of sexual harassment, states Vera (22). She didn't speak up either when she experienced it herself. “It happened at my internship. There was a renowned director who was always touching people”. After a long day of filming, Vera was grabbing her coat when the man approached her and kissed her neck. “I had no idea how to respond. I just acted as though nothing had happened. I really didn’t know what to do”. She told her boyfriend about it that same night, and he told her that she should report the incident. “But I was just an intern, he was much higher up in the company. I thought people would say: 'oh, he doesn’t mean it like that'.” The incident stayed on Vera's mind for a long time, and it bothered her so much that if her boyfriend tried to hug her from behind, she would freeze and think ‘don’t touch me!’
People disregard me as 'just a feminist' if I say that's inappropriate
How can we solve this issue? Where does one draw the line? Touching and flirting are common behaviours among students. For example, one of the games most commonly played during the associations’ introduction days is called 'Across the line'. New students are asked whether they are in a relationship: those who are take a seat while the single ones remain standing, so everybody knows who they can "target" that night. The same goes whenever the song "All the Single Ladies" is played.
Alisha (24) is a victim of sexual violence. She met a guy at a party at student housing complex IBB and ended up in bed with him that night. “I told him we had to use a condom and I saw him put it on. I was really tipsy, I wasn't completely there. But we still had sex,” she explains. They had anal sex too, even though she didn’t want to. After a while, she saw the condom lying on the floor. “I was shocked, why was it there? But at that moment I couldn’t think anything except 'shit, this is happening.'” It wasn’t until the next day that she realised what happened to her wasn't okay. She was embarrassed, and felt dirty. “I hate it so much that someone would do such a thing. I don’t know his name. All I know is that he was a Veritas member,” she says.
Juul (27) was also a victim of a fraternity member. “My job had a really strong student culture as a lot of Veritas members worked there. One of my colleagues said, in the presence of the management team: 'Hey Juul, I like your dress, nice and tight. You should wear it more often!" When I said that was inappropriate, I was disregarded as 'just a feminist'".
Your female colleagues will be all over you
Veritas' reaction: “We're not listening", says Laura Baartmans. “But it does happen and it's worrissome. We’re adjusting our internal policies to see whether we can, perhaps, introduce suspensions.”
If sexual harassment is so prevalent, does that mean the university is full of perpetrators? Are they even aware that's what they are? Baartmans came up with the campaign alongside the current board, which consists of four women and four men. Asked whether there were any disagreements between the women and the men, she says: "Definitely. Women regarded certain things as sexual harassment, while the men shouted: ‘but that’s a compliment!’ It happened when we discussed catcalling, for instance”. Which means that, yes, some perpetrators aren't aware of the harm they cause to others.
Although men are a minority among the victims, it's important to note that it’s not just women who experience sexual harassment. Willem (24) had to send in a passport photo for his new job. In response, he received an e-mail from his manager, a woman, saying: ‘Nice picture. Your female colleagues will be all over you." Willem: “She even included a heart emoji. I showed the message to a roommate, and he said: 'that’s great, right?' But I wasn’t so sure." This kind of behaviour would be expected from men, says Willem, but not the other way around. “It was such a strange position of power she held. Plus, she was the confidential advisor for the company”. Although harassment does happen to men, rape is far less common. “Men are physically stronger. But someone squeezing your butt or shouting things at you happens often enough,” he says.
Veritas' campaign was well-received by students and the media. Even the mayor complimented it when the association showed him the posters. “That’s a great start. Let’s hope sexual harassment is addressed more often in the near future.”
*The names of the victims have been changed in order to protect their privacy. DUB's editors know their actual names.