Sexual harassment among students: common, yet rarely reported

(14-02-2021) Sexual harassment is a common problem among students. Yet many victims do not report it to supporting organisations

This was revealed in a study by Ghent University among first-year students. Anyone needing to talk about such experiences can turn to Trustpunt.

“Sexual harassment is remarkably common,” concludes Joke Depraetere after her study at Ghent University between April and July 2019. “Among the students in the first year of their bachelor degree,16.1% of the men and 28.5% of the women experienced harassment in the past 12 months. Women are much more often the victim: 34% of them had already been kissed or touched in a sexual manner against their will.”

The term sexual harassment is very broad, ranging from voyeurism and exhibitionism, to forcing someone to undress, or spreading naked photos. It can concern rape, but also unwanted kisses or physical contact.

Young people taking their first steps at university are most at risk. Joke: “In the United States, experts and academics often allude to a ‘red zone’. This refers to the first months at university, during which there are many cases of sexual harassment. Eighteen year olds acquire new freedom and gain independence. Furthermore, when they go out, they often come into contact with large quantities of drink or drugs, which makes them vulnerable.”

Talking about sexual harassment

It is striking that the victims hardly ever share their story. Joke: “About half of them say nothing about incidents of sexual harassment. Those that do tell, talk mainly to fellow students, their friends, family or partner. Only 5% formally reports the event to an official body, such as a doctor, caregiver, helpline or the police. Less than 1% comes to the authorities at Ghent University. So victims may find sufficient support in their close environment, or perhaps they lack the courage to turn to official bodies, or maybe they just don’t know which bodies to turn to.”

Even so, such bodies do exist, and also at Ghent University. Trustpunt is there for students at Ghent University to listen and give support following sexual harassment. Adinda Dujardin, confidential counsellor at Trustpunt: “We are there to help in case of sexual harassment, physical or verbal aggression, or bullying. Recently, we have noticed more concerns relating to online sexual harassment. Social interaction has switched to social media, chat boxes and video streams, which means that harassment is increasingly virtual.”

Students who are troubled by, or have witnessed such activity, or those with questions can turn to Adinda and her colleagues. Adinda: “We start by listening to what the student needs in order to cope with the situation. You can ask for advice or come along for a chat. Everything is confidential, and it’s your decision whether further steps are taken. We can offer a listening ear and support when hearing a declaration of harassment and its impact. The declaration is important: the breaching of boundaries is not always conscious or intentional.”

Boundaries are personal

Shame, low self-esteem, excessive use of alcohol, self-harming, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts. The potential impact of sexual harassment is both diverse and alarming. Joke: “Almost one third of the men and two thirds of the women experienced at least one of these negative effects on their mental health. We recently witnessed in the media what the impact can be of publishing naked photos. It is important that students realise that they can talk about it.”

Even so, this impact differs from person to person. Adinda: “Sexual harassment can affect people very strongly, depending on earlier experiences. If someone has suffered something very intense and then faces something similar in a milder form, it can open up the old wounds. The impact depends on different factors, such as the proximity of the person, the duration and repetition of the factors, and what you personally consider to be the boundary. Boundaries are very personal: what one person considers neutral can be seen as harassment by another. A situation does not need to be ‘bad’ for you to ask for support. Simply feeling uncomfortable with a situation is quite sufficient for you to contact Trustpunt.”

Those experiencing or witnessing (sexual) harassment and wanting to talk about it, or those with questions, can contact Trustpunt by telephone on 09 264 82 82 (mornings) or send a mail to trustpunt@ugent.be.