Stuck between perp and victim
Helping people isn’t that simple for the UG
‘What do you need?’ the study adviser asked Merel in December 2020. ‘What can I do to help you?’
That question sounded much simpler than it actually was. Because Merel had recently come forward after being raped by a fellow student in the student house they shared. She had barely begun to process what had happened.
‘What I needed was for him to be gone’, she says. ‘He lived on my floor, we had classes in the same building, and I kept running into him. I wanted him to be banned from the university. But that obviously wasn’t possible.’
One possibility was for Merel to move. That was easier said than done, however, because she signed a rental contract for a year. ‘But my study adviser helped me terminate it.’
Another solution was for her not to take the same courses as the perpetrator. That meant if they were enrolled together, her study adviser would help her switch. ‘But it often happened that I only realised he was also enrolled when the group chat was created or during the first class.’
Still, it worked, she says. Sort of. But she missed out on quite a few courses and that does feel wrong. ‘I understand that the university is in a difficult position here. They can’t just tell him he can’t take certain courses. But that meant that I couldn’t. And so I faced new setbacks every time.’
The issue is illustrative of the dilemma the university faces when dealing with misconduct. Yes, the RUG has a zero tolerance policy. And no, sexual violence is absolutely not allowed. In April, a campaign was launched to encourage students and staff to discuss and address inappropriate behaviour. Victims are encouraged to reach out to a mentor, teacher, study adviser, or confidential adviser.
The UG can’t just tell him he can’t take certain courses
At the same time, it is evident that it creates complex situations within the university. How do you deal with a student who reports sexual violence while the perpetrator denies it? There are no protocols. As a counsellor, you assume that the victim is telling the truth, but at the same time, the other person has also paid the tuition fee. And usually, there is no legal conviction.
‘Don’t forget: there is a huge grey area’, says confidential adviser Marjolein Renker. ‘Most of the reports I receive aren’t as severe. They also involve unwanted messages on social media. In these cases we need to figure out how to make it clear to the person responsible that someone is not okay with that.’
Having a protocol may sound nice and clear, but its effectiveness is a matter of debate. The cases that study advisers and the confidential adviser encounter vary too much. The same goes for what the victims need. ‘What may be adequate and sufficient for one person may not work for another’, says Renker. ‘So it’s always a matter of figuring things out: what happened? What do you want? What would help you? What can I do about it? What can you do about it? What can the organisation do about it?’
Renker refers victims to the police, a general practitioner, or student psychologists. Students can also independently seek help from student psychologists, who generally have a five-week waiting list.
The accessibility of the UG psychologists is a plus, according to student psychologist Eva Slot. And even though they cannot treat major traumas, due to the maximum of five sessions they can offer, they can address lighter cases. ‘Sometimes a student doesn’t really know what kind of help they truly need’, she says. ‘That’s something we can figure out together.’
But study advisers are on the frontline, says Renker. ‘In the past, people quickly used to say: go see the confidential adviser. But I can’t do much except listen, refer, or council. It’s the department that can take action.’
Additional training and, if necessary, consulting with the confidential adviser have made study advisers much more alert than before, which means they’re able to respond more effectively.
Merel contacted the study adviser almost immediately in December 2020. Her adviser then helped her avoid the perpetrator as much as possible. When he seemingly started stalking her, something which impacted her severely, the adviser recommended she keep a kind of diary that she could potentially take to the police. It turned out to be unnecessary, she says now, because the year was almost over. ‘But the fact that I was heard meant a lot.’
In Dolores’ case, there were other options. In 2022, she approached the confidential adviser when she discovered that she was not the only victim of the classmate who had raped her. The confidential adviser helped Dolores find a general practitioner for a referral.
The fact that I was heard meant a lot
Then her study adviser took over and contacted the student psychologists, so Dolores could start the healing process quickly. But I still ended up on the waiting list for three weeks’, she says.
The study adviser also told her that, if her grades were to suffer due to the situation, her bsa (binding study advice) could potentially be lowered. ‘I told her that for now, I was okay’, says Dolores. ‘And I managed to catch up at the end of the year. I passed a lot of resits.’
Finally, a meeting was scheduled with the perpetrator. ‘They told him that he was never allowed to talk to me ever again. And that he couldn’t attend the same tutorials as I did.’
In Maud’s case, the study advisers mainly played a supportive role. She was raped in club Kokomo in 2019 after a night out. She managed to send a disjointed distress message to a friend who was outside. ‘He came in and grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me out.’
The police investigation was traumatising, she says. Even more traumatising was receiving a bill of 480 euros for the ‘gynecological examination’ in the mail.
Although her health insurance had assured her that she didn’t have to worry about it, a few months later, she received a bill from a debt collector. It came with an invitation to come to court and a twelve-page report in Dutch, a language she doesn’t speak. ‘It put me in such a dark place, because where the hell was I going to come up with 600 euros? How did this happen?’ she wonders.
The case was resolved thanks to a few law students and her study adviser. The students helped her translate the documents. The study adviser communicated with the court to arrange an extension, and ultimately, the case was dropped. ‘But it makes me so angry. The police, the sexual assault team, everybody! They were so uncaring, gaslighting me with all this bullshit, and it was only students who cared.’
Her study advisers are still doing everything they can to help her, because three years later, she is still struggling. They are always empathetic, she says. They also mediate with her professors, so that they are not too strict regarding attendance or deadlines. ‘God knows I’ve stopped going to classes because I’ve had a male teacher. I know he’s probably not done anything, but I just can’t be around them.’
There are even more possibilities, says confidential adviser Renker. The perpetrator can be asked to attend classes online. If a victim no longer feels comfortable attending classes, an arrangement can be made to appoint a contact person within the building. ‘So that you feel safe and know what to do if things don’t go as they should.’
I’ve stopped going to classes because I’ve had a male teacher
It also happens that perpetrators are denied access to the buildings or even expelled from the programme. ‘I think I’ve seen that happen two or three times in the last five years.’
However, it doesn’t always go smoothly, says Maríia. They were assaulted by a fellow student, someone who was a friend until that moment. During a seminar, he grabbed their thigh close to the hip. ‘I had a wound there from when I fell off my bike, and it completely reopened.’
The incident opened up a floodgate of emotions for Maríia, who was raped as a teenager. ‘He was in my classes again and again. I could not sleep, I could not eat, I was always on edge. He did that to me.
Try talking to him
Maríia had a ready-made solution for their study problem: first choice for joint classes. But the study adviser instead advised having a conversation with the perpetrator. ‘She was asking a lot of questions like: Have you tried talking to him? Why don’t you just approach him about the things that happened in Honours College? Or talk to him in a public place where you have witnesses.’
It completely missed the mark, says Maríia. ‘I was scared. Anytime that I was in class, I would shake from anxiety and feel physically sick and want to throw up. And I should talk to this guy? They couldn’t even give him a slap on the wrist for something that happened.’
Maríia hates that the university didn’t do anything to keep the perpetrator away from her or to make him face consequences.
And even though Merel understands the difficult situation the UG was in regarding her case, she still finds it difficult that she was the one who had to make changes while the perpetrator didn’t have to do anything. She feels it’s not fair.
But it illustrates how challenging the situation is. ‘Every situation is different’, says a study adviser who encounters one or two severe cases every year, but who wishes to remain anonymous.
It’s heartbreaking if you can’t help a victim
A conversation to stop the behaviour only works if the perpetrator is willing to show up and if a discussion about the situation is possible. And what if a perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge their mistakes? ‘Too often, young men still think in stereotypes – the rapist as the creepy man in the bushes. And so they can’t be rapists’, she explains. ‘But people who made the wrong decision in a certain situation are also perpetrators.’
In cases like these, the institute cannot take concrete steps. ‘Not without the court being involved. And that results in a tremendous feeling of powerlessness. It’s heartbreaking to see a victim bending backwards to avoid seeing the perpetrator, and you can’t help them’, she says.
‘It’s difficult’, agrees her colleague Iris de Boer from the Faculty of Behavioral and Social Sciences. However, it is essential for students to report if they have experienced sexual violence.
Because the number of students reporting to the university is not very high. The confidential adviser received thirteen reports of sexual harassment between students in 2021. The student psychologists also ‘don’t see it very often’.
If that’s because a victim has found help elsewhere, or has no complaints, then that’s okay, emphasise the counsellors. But it’s not okay if victims don’t trust that they will be helped or don’t know who to turn to.
Elena, who was raped by someone in her student association, kept her story to herself. She didn’t believe that anything would actually happen with her report. ‘What’s the point of me going to the university if there’s no one to listen, if there’s no one to help, and no one’s going to actually do anything? What’s the point of me bringing this up?’ she says. ‘Is it worth the hassle of having to relive that experience?’
Is it worth the hassle of having to relive that experience?
That’s unfortunate, says Renker: a report will always be taken seriously. ‘If someone emails me describing what happened to them and that they don’t know what to do, they will have an appointment within a few days.’
‘We can’t always do what we’d like’, says De Boer. ‘But if we don’t have the information, we can’t do anything at all.’
That’s why, she says, the new campaign on social safety is so important. ‘I think students often don’t share their story. Sometimes because they think it’s not serious enough, until it has gone so far that it’s too intense for them to share.’
The victims are left with mixed feelings. The perpetrators are still around, yet they are the ones dealing with the consequences. ‘He faced no consequences. I think that’s very wrong’, says Dolores.
‘I considered dropping out, but if I fail my classes, my visa will be retracted. That’s just not an option’, says Maríia.
Maud is just very angry. ‘I would love more than anything to pack up and leave the city behind, but I’m trapped academically. Is the world going to end if you show some leniency? Or, like, lower some grade boundaries?’ she says.
Merel hesitates. ‘It’s just really bizarre that everyone knows this happened. But I’m still the one who doesn’t feel safe anymore.’
The names of the students in this article are pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Their real names are known to the editors.
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.