The importance of safe spaces

by Hanna Eisen

The systems to provide victims of sexual violence with sufficient support are still failing within institutions of higher education. This interferes with the adequate recording of patterns of power abuse and misconduct. But, most importantly, it creates an unsafe environment within institutions, in which people do not feel comfortable speaking up after experiencing sexual misconduct. Safe spaces, in which like-minded people can share their concerns and experiences, can provide release within these failing systems. Meanwhile, these institutions need to be reformed to prevent misconduct and provide adequate support in the future.

Currently, there are multiple known cases of power abuse and “inappropriate behaviour” by staff members and professors towards students and other staff members within the Netherlands. Two of those cases have been revealed within Radboud University in the last two years. Additionally, cases of sexual misconduct between students happen regularly, but most of them are not being reported. In July 2022, the Erasmus Magazine in Rotterdam shared the results of a survey on sexually transgressive behaviour. According to this study, two-thirds of students have experienced sexual assault during their studies, of which most did not form a complaint at their university. These numbers are being confirmed by VOX magazine, who published a study in December 2022, in which 52% of the respondents claim to be touched without consent. This number excludes all cases of further sexual assault.

After experiencing sexual assault, people can decide to make a complaint about their abuser. However, often people do not even know whom to address when seeking help, which creates a feeling of alienation. If they take the tremendously courageous step of complaining about their abuser, they will likely have to face re-traumatising situations. They will most likely be pressured to talk about the details of their assault over and over again with multiple strangers, possibly even being victim-blamed by employees who are supposed to help them. The process of making a complaint often takes months, and most likely results in exhaustion and disappointment. Victims face a complaint system, in which every step seems to have the purpose of preventing the story from coming out.

All abusers known to me are still studying or involved with the institution, even though their victims spoke up against them within the institution. This is one reason why victims often feel isolated or fear the consequences of making a formal complaint. They are stuck in a system that is attempting to silence them, even though it is supposed to do the opposite.

Organised safe spaces within institutions of higher education are one solution to this lack of support for students. These safe spaces can be organised by a group of people, who are closely connected to and known among students. Preferably this is a group of students who volunteer to create space for vulnerability, mutual understanding and support. This vulnerable sharing can be created by the organisers sharing about their own experiences and their expertise of the position of being a victim within the institution.

One example of these safe spaces is the Social Safety Care Club (SSCC) within the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies (FFTR) at Radboud University. This support group was founded in October 2021 by six students, who all have experienced the failure of the system firsthand. By organising bi-weekly open sessions in which any student can join and share their experience, the group hopes to support victims in processing these traumatic experiences. If necessary, the members of the SSCC provide assistance in speaking up and formulating complaints. Due to the lack of similar organisations in other faculties within Radboud University, the SSCC now provides all students of this university the opportunity to share their stories and be heard. 

The members of the SSCC are not professionally trained and can therefore not substitute therapeutic counselling. They are merely providing a safe space, inviting people to be vulnerable by being vulnerable themselves. The idea behind this initiative is to create a support system which makes seeking help easier and beginning the process of officially making a complaint. It is therefore a valuable addition to the existing system, attempting to make it more humane and supportive for victims.

Similar actions have been taken by other universities in the Netherlands. The University of Amsterdam provides victims with a safe space within the organisation of “CARE Amsterdam”. An initiative by students in Leiden (A Survivor at Leiden) requests the reinstatement of a similar support group from their university. The University cut the funding for the support group in June 2021. These organisations and initiatives show that psychological support is still insufficiently provided for victims and such safe spaces need to be implemented in more institutions of higher education across the country. 

To rely on people who have experience being victims and speaking up within the system can provide necessary assistance for victims and might lead to more people speaking up about their experiences of misconduct. However, it is not the responsibility of students to support each other, but the obligation of the universities to keep them safe.

Contact Social Safety Care Club:

Instagram: @socialsafetycareclub

E-mail: socialsafetycc@gmail.com

References:

Chief Diversity Office Blog. CARE Amsterdam. University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands. https://uvadiversity.blog/care-amsterdam/ 

Erasmus Magazine. Seksueel grensoverschrijdend gedrag onder studenten. Erasmus Magazine, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 14th July 2022. https://www.erasmusmagazine.nl/specials/seksueel-grensoverschrijdend-gedrag-onder-studenten/ 

Haverkamp, Annemarie. Investigation complete: Paul Bakker will not become dean and is not welcome at the faculty for the foreseeable future. VOXweb, Nijmegen, Netherlands, 21st September 2020. https://www.voxweb.nl/english/investigation-complete-paul-bakker-will-not-become-dean-and-is-not-welcome-at-the-faculty-for-the-foreseeable-future 

Loosbroek, Sebastian van. Universiteit stuurt hoogleraar sterrenkunde weg na ‘ernstig ongewenst gedrag’. Leids Universitair Weekblad Mare, Leiden, Netherlands, 18th October 2022. https://www.mareonline.nl/nieuws/hoogleraar-verwijderd-van-universiteit-leiden-vanwege-ernstig-ongewenst-gedrag/ 

Nooij, Mathijs and Kathelijne Tijms. Ook in Nijmegen is sejsuele intimidatie aan de orde van de dag. VOX Magazine, No. 2, pp. 12-17. December 2022. 

Radboud University. Onderzoek ongewenst gedrag medewerker. Faculteit der Socialen Wetenschappen, Nijmegen, Netherlands, 31st October 2022. https://www.ru.nl/fsw/vm-actueel/nieuws/@1364087/onderzoek-ongewenst-gedrag-medewerker/ 

Image by Priscilla Du Preez Unsplash  

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