Commentary: The education I wished I had when a senior at university touched me
An unpleasant encounter in campus made this young woman understand that sexual harassment is a complex issue and education is at the heart of change.
SINGAPORE: My freshman experience was an unhappy one.
Initially, plunging into a new social context was both thrilling and daunting. When uncertainties arose, I confided in a senior I had met during one of my orientation camps.
But in time the relationship became fraught – he demanded more of my time and energy, accused me of leading him on, and spread rumours about my character in social circles that we shared – circles in which he was well-established and well-liked.
I struggled to appease him, desperate to maintain a sense of normalcy and social balance.
When he put his hand on the small of my back one day, I froze - and said nothing. Then it happened again. And again.
I soon discovered that not being able to say no was just one complex factor which nurtured the insidious presence of sexual harassment on campus.
WHY UNIVERSITY STUDENTS ARE SUSCEPTIBLE
In a recent survey commissioned by The Sunday Times of 440 undergraduates, a fifth of respondents said they knew a friend who had been sexually harassed in the past year. Nine students themselves reported being victims of sexual harassment.
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While harassment is not limited to universities, the unique circumstances of students in universities should warrant careful consideration.
University is a time of exploration and experiential learning. Students are on the cusp of adulthood, forming new and complex relationships in a highly social environment.
For many moving into campus residence is their first time living away from home.
There are several factors at work: Balancing newfound independence with living in close proximity to the opposite gender, exploring new relationships, and in many cases, a greater propensity to consume alcohol.
Taken together, these can put students in a vulnerable position.
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For seniors or staff who are established in existing social or institutional groups, it becomes easy to prey on uncertainties and exploit these weaknesses.
Even for fellow students without ill intentions, the quick thrust into a new depth of intimacy can lead to boundaries being crossed.
In some circumstances, neither party could be aware that a boundary existed, until one side is made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
Once these situations arise, many victims are unwilling to address the issue, afraid they will be socially penalised for disrupting group harmony, or making things “awkward”.
If the perpetrator is in a position of authority, in cases such as with former Tembusu College professor Jeremy Fernando, the power disparity makes it harder to speak out.
Victims swallow their discomfort and dismiss their experiences, sometimes even continuing to bear with persistent advances, which can have deep implications on their physical, mental and emotional health.
MORE EDUCATION IS NEEDED
Since the public outcry in April 2019 against the case of National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Nicholas Lim who filmed then-undergraduate Monica Baey in the shower, universities have been quick to implement new guidelines and measures against campus sexual harassment.
NUS and Singapore Management University have established dedicated care units to respond to cases of harassment and provide professional support to affected students.
NUS and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have launched new anti-harassment online modules, which are mandatory for all students.
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All three universities announced their planned actions to review disciplinary guidelines and frameworks.
Still, these efforts have limitations in curbing the issue of sexual harassment.
As a co-founder of Girl, Talk, a student campaign against campus sexual harassment, I spoke to many women across universities in Singapore who persistently raised common gaps in education.
These included a need for more understanding about sexual harassment which can be nuanced and insidious, more discussions around the principles of consent, and more knowledge about how to react to harassment situations.
In all these topics, universities play a pivotal role in foregrounding education, which can help students safely navigate new relationships and boundaries on campus.
UNIVERSITIES MUST EDUCATE
If universities are truly taking note of the 172 reported cases of sexual misconduct in institutes of higher learning between 2015-2019, and committed to changing this, they must be proactive in creating and upgrading new and existing avenues of education.
The compulsory anti-harassment online modules adopted in NUS and NTU are a positive step forward, but information on these modules must more seriously target student mindsets, and cannot be seen as an inherent chore – something a student haphazardly clears to in order to gain access to report slips.
Universities must look to continually refresh and update module content by consulting students and experts to realise gaps in education and opportunities for greater engagement.
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Going one step further, workshops can play a role in facilitating open and honest discussions.
Regular, accessible workshops that cover a range of topics – the psychology behind “fight”, “flight”, “freeze” or “fawn” responses, consent and setting boundaries, the existence and eradication of rape culture – can help male and female students break down the issue of campus sexual harassment.
These workshops can also be practical, and involve external vendors, such as the Sexual Assault First Responder Training by AWARE's Sexual Assault Care Centre, which equips participants with the necessary skills to be effective first responders to survivors.
Students who attend these workshops can possibly be roped into volunteer programmes, stationed in campus or available on call, to provide support when they are contacted or activated.
Universities can also explore innovative solutions such as utilising virtual reality (VR) simulations to help students learn how to identify and respond to harassment situations, stimulating their emotions and reactions without compromising on comfort and safety.
Through mental rehearsals, students can reduce affective forecasting error, decreasing the discrepancy between the way they imagine they would behave, and how they would actually behave in the situation.
Above all, schools must be open to collaborating with student advocacy groups such as Girl, Talk or Students for a Safer NUS, empowering, advising, and uplifting them, instead of attempting to manage or control these efforts.
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But there are limitations even to the effectiveness of agent-centric, empowerment-based education. Even if students are able to clearly express their needs, the alarming rise of voyeurism and other non-consensual pornography show how circumstances are often completely out of their control.
In all cases, universities must take swift action, as well as uphold accountability and transparency within the wider university community.
If universities are truly looking to create safe, conducive spaces for living and learning, they need to take more holistic approaches to prioritising student safety and building a culture that is intolerant towards sexual harassment.
Three years after the incident in my first year, I contacted that senior to speak about it. To his credit, he was open, apologetic and willing to accept accountability for his actions.
That day, I gained closure, but I also gained something else – a foundation for my advocacy.
“It keeps running through my brain,” I told him, “That if maybe I had known how to establish my boundaries, that if maybe someone had told me I had the absolute right to safety and no one was entitled to take that away, that maybe - just maybe - neither of us would need to be here today.”
Today, I speak up about campus sexual harassment, boldly and unapologetically, joined by many other student advocates.
We spark important conversations, with the strong and fervent hope that these conversations will continue to educate, empower, and impact a generation.
Heather Seet is the co-founder of youth collective Girl, Talk and an advocate against sexual violence. She graduated from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) this year.