Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Raped by a friend

The attacker is everywhere

Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
Hundreds of students in Groningen experience sexual violence each year. Afterwards, they face a social minefield, because the perpetrator is often a fellow student or friend who can show up anywhere. ‘There was no place I was safe.’
13 June om 10:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 June 2023
om 10:59 uur.
June 13 at 10:59 AM.
Last modified on June 13, 2023
at 10:59 AM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

13 June om 10:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 June 2023
om 10:59 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

June 13 at 10:59 AM.
Last modified on June 13, 2023
at 10:59 AM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

It felt like a punch to the gut. For a moment, she couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe. She tried to calm down by telling herself that she could handle it. But the panic wouldn’t go away. For fifteen minutes, she sat frozen in that lecture hall while class continued around her. Until it became impossible, and she fled to the restroom.

Merel, a student at the University of Groningen, was raped by a fellow student. Three years later, she is still confronted with the consequences. She developed PTSD and became suicidal. She lost friends because her version of what happened that night is not the same as his. She filed a police report, but the Public Prosecutor’s Office did not take the case to court due to lack of evidence — 60 percent of rape cases end in dismissal.

Merel is one of the thousands of women who are raped during their time at university. According to a 2021 study by Amnesty International, it happens to one in ten female students in the Netherlands. The number of cases of sexual assault is even higher. Almost one in three female students experiences unwanted sexual behaviour while a student. The numbers are lower for men: 1 percent are raped and 11 percent are sexually assaulted.

The consequences are significant. More than half of the victims experience psychological problems such as depression, PTSD, or suicidal thoughts. Relationships break down. They experience study delays or even drop out completely. The problems are exacerbated because the perpetrators of sexual violence are acquaintances of the victims in seven out of ten cases — friends and fellow students. Men they encounter again in lecture halls or in the hallway of their student flat.

Black eye

What makes it even more complicated for Merel is that the rapist was her ex-boyfriend. She explicitly stated that she did not want to have sex that evening, she says, but it happened anyway. ‘I was crying the whole time, and I tried multiple times to get away, but I kept being pulled back. In the end, I gave him a black eye and left.’

Her friends heard her crying and came to comfort her. They were the ones who encouraged her to call the police. The police came to the apartment, followed by medical examinations and interrogations — ‘a very intense experience’.

It was as if something had happened to him and not to me

She could no longer stay in the house where she lived with the perpetrator. She had to twist herself into knots to avoid being confronted with him again and again. She remembers coming back once and finding him in the common area, where she wanted to play games with her friends. There was that punch to her stomach again. There was panic that she desperately tried to suppress. ‘I thought: how can he sit here so casually? What is he thinking now? What has he told others?’

Because it was clear that he had told people things. She noticed it in the whispers, the looks from people she considered her friends. ‘It was as if something had happened to him and not to me. As if he was the victim.’

She fled, as she would do many more times. Fled from the building where she had lived — a big hassle, because she technically couldn’t terminate the rental contract. But how could she continue living there? Fled from lecture halls where he was present. Fled from the gender-neutral restrooms where she could encounter him at any moment. ‘There was no place I was safe.’

Continuous confrontation

When you keep running into the perpetrator, processing the trauma of assault or rape becomes even more difficult than it already is. Seemingly small events can easily trigger flashbacks, as student psychologist Eva Slot knows. A continual confrontation with the perpetrator only complicates matters further. ‘Then it just keeps going’, she says. ‘The victim remains in that unsafe situation.’

Student Dolores also experienced this when she was raped in early 2022 by a fellow student whom she had considered her best friend. ‘I had a lot of respect for him. I thought he was great.’ They studied together a lot, although he would sometimes touch her, often in a sexual way and without consent. 

‘I really made an effort letting him know that he had to ask first’, she says. There came a moment, in a study cabin at Zernike, where he kept sitting closer to her while she kept moving further against the wall.

Why hadn’t I pushed him away?

They had sex together once, and it was consensual, Dolores says. But she also decided that she didn’t want to repeat the experience. ‘I communicated that to him.’ But then came another moment when they were studying together in her room, and that time, he raped her. She said ‘stop’ several times. Every time, he said ‘no’ and continued. ‘He heard me say it’, she says, ‘and decided by himself not to listen.’ 

She blamed herself for what had happened. ‘I felt disgusted that I wasn’t able to properly stop him. Why hadn’t I pushed him away? Why had I allowed him to touch me so many times?’

She buried the incident deep and tried to avoid confrontation. But he kept reappearing: in study spaces, in lecture halls. It was a difficult period, she says. ‘I was struggling. When I had classes, I wouldn’t really sleep and stay very upset throughout the night. I was failing a lot.’

Social minefield

The victims of rape or sexual assault by a person they know respond by adapting their behaviour and avoiding places where they might encounter the perpetrator. They no longer attend classes or they adjust their study schedules. ‘I would have a panic attack every time’, says Merel. ‘When that happens I will hyperventilate, and all I can think is: I don’t want this, I don’t want to be here. I can’t do anything anymore.’

But in addition to the constant feeling of insecurity, those who have been raped or assaulted by someone they know also face a social minefield. Friendships come under pressure, causing the victim to sometimes choose not to file a report or remain silent altogether.

For example, Groningen student Carolien did not file a report when she was raped in March 2020 by her roommate’s best friend. ‘He was a sweet, caring boy.’ At least, that’s how she knew him.

After a night out, she ended up drunk at his place. To sleep, she explicitly stated. But it turned out differently. ‘We were kissing, and at some point, he wanted more. I made it clear that I didn’t want it, but he penetrated me and hit me. Not in my face, but on my body. I was covered in bruises later’, she says.

Shame and guilt

She told her girlfriends what had happened, and they supported her fully. But filing a report? ‘He was my roommate’s best friend’, she says. ‘And I didn’t want to do that to her.’

In addition, she struggled with shame and guilt. ‘I felt like I had brought it upon myself’, she says. Maybe he hadn’t even meant it in a bad way, she felt. There had been alcohol. There had been cocaine. ‘And I think maybe he hasn’t learned enough about consent and boundaries and such.’

I didn’t want to file a report against my roommate’s best friend

She tried to bury it. But when she went out with friends after three months, the flashbacks came. ‘I had really extreme re-experiences’, she says. ‘And then it just went downhill with panic attacks and PTSD.’

She stopped caring about her studies. Lost trust in the world. Had fits of anger. Received criticism from friends — men — that she wasn’t as fun or nice to be around as before. A friend told her that he ‘had an opinion’ about what had happened. Because, well, she had gone along with the guy while drunk, so… ‘And then something snapped. That one of my best friends, someone who is so close to me and has always been very kind, could say that to my face. I was upset, I cried. And of course, I had ruined the party.’

She has since developed a thick skin. Don’t engage. Let it go. But the frustration remains, as does the disgust for the culture that perpetuates this, especially among men. ‘Something happens, and they tell it to their fraternity and their male friends, and then they say, “well, she went home with you, right? So we understand why you thought it was okay”. They justify it.’

Police report

Merel also didn’t file a report initially, because she didn’t want everyone to know about him, and it would become a ‘thing’. ‘I also felt sorry for him.’

But then, after three months, came the student party where another girl was groped. In the commotion that followed, her assailant took the side of the perpetrator. ‘He gave this whole speech about women who say no but actually mean yes. And that it wasn’t this guy’s fault.’ That was the moment when she decided to file a police report after all. ‘Apparently, he hadn’t learned anything.’

However, that decision did not make her life easier. ‘He said that we had sex and then had a fight, and that I had hit him. That I was crazy.’ Quite a lot of people around her took his side. During classes, people didn’t want to work with her. ‘And the perpetrator intimidated me by dropping into classes I attended. At least, that’s how it felt. Or by standing at my door and talking loudly with his friends.’

The aftermath has had even more impact than the assault itself, she says. ‘I still often dream about being excluded and people not believing me.’ Nevertheless, she has no regrets about filing the report. Fighting back ultimately gave her strength, she says.

Not taken seriously

For UG student Elena, the fear of not being taken seriously was enough to keep her silent after she was raped by a board member of her study association. She’d been so drunk when she went home with him that she couldn’t remember anything. She came to at the moment he climaxed inside her. ‘You know, the state of shock the next day was enormous. I was trying to be very polite just because I had no clue what had happened.’

I don’t like it when men I don’t know come close to me

She asked about contraceptives. She asked about an STD test. He said he assumed she was on the pill, but eventually paid for her morning-after pill. ‘He also said he tested negative two or three months ago, so he supposed we were fine. But then he said that he had unprotected sex with someone else after getting tested.’

She didn’t file a report. In fact, she tried to bury it deep inside when classmates she cautiously approached didn’t seem to see a problem in what had happened. ‘They asked me: “What happened yesterday, it was like you were crazy!” They were just hungry to hear the gossip.’

She did tell them she needed plan B and that it was definitely not something she’d planned. ‘But they just saw this incident as a common occurrence and stated that in Dutch culture it is normal to expect that all girls are on contraception in one way or another. At that time, I was too ashamed to tell them what had happened to me a few hours before.’


For all the students, the violence means that their lives at the university will never be the same again. Merel is still undergoing trauma therapy three years later.

Carolien provides training to young people, to teach them how to deal with sexual violence. ‘But I can still find men very scary. I don’t like being in the dark, and I don’t like it when men I don’t know come close to me.’

Elena distanced herself from everything related to her board year. ‘I avoided going near the premises where I had spent most of my time before, just because I knew that the likelihood of seeing him there was high’, she says. She is also no longer involved in board activities. ‘My perception about Dutch men has been so fucked after this. I can’t look at them.’

The trust in the friendships she formed during her board year has also disappeared. ‘I guess, of course, they didn’t know the full story because I didn’t have the guts to tell them right away, but I was expecting a different reaction’, she says now. ‘They don’t really care. You’re friends for the time being.’

Dolores’ assailant still regularly appears in WhatsApp groups they both belong to, although he no longer enters the buildings where she studies. ‘He’s very active in those groups and gets a lot of praise. It makes me really angry. I want to say, “Hey, he did this to me. Don’t praise him so much”.’

The names of the students in this article are pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Their real names are known to the editors. 

Next week: What does the university do to help victims of sexual violence?

Have you been a victim of sexual violence or sexual misconduct?

  • Talk about it! You can tell a friend or someone else you feel safe with. You can also talk or chat with someone from the Center for Sexual Violence 24 hours a day. They will first ask you general questions. Then you can indicate what kind of help you need: psychological, medical, or police assistance.
  • Report it to your mentor, study advisor, confidential advisor, or ombudsperson. They will always take the time for you. They can guide you towards specialised care and help you continue your studies as best as possible.
  • Go to the student psychologists. They can offer you five free sessions, for which you don’t need a referral from your GP.
  • If you want to protect yourself, Invi bracelets are a good tool. They don’t stand out, but when the capsule inside breaks, a foul-smelling liquid is released, which repels your attacker.
  • If you have incurred expenses, such as therapy costs, you may be eligible for compensation from the Violent Offences Compensation Fund.
  • Victim Support Netherlands can provide you with emotional and legal support. They also assist with applications to the Violent Offences Compensation Fund.