The minefield that is unacceptable behaviour
University is often a period of sexual exploration and experimentation, generally to the satisfaction of all involved. But sometimes you want it and the other doesn’t. Or vice versa. Or you can’t really tell. This is what the Safe Space play at Theater Ins Blau was about on 11 October. And: can your professor touch your bottom if you’ve just flung your arms around him in a drunken stupor?
Safe Space is an interactive play about unacceptable behaviour and dignity and respect – and how to navigate these. The play gradually covers sexual safety, sexual misconduct and what these mean. It soon became clear that ‘unacceptable behaviour’ is very personal. One person’s fine is another person’s unsafe. And it is this grey area that causes so many problems.
- 7% of students are bullied
- 3 in 10 students feel unsafe during their studies
- 1 in 10 women is raped as a student
- 4 in 10 victims do not feel safe sharing this
- almost half of lgbtiq+ students feel discriminated against
Source: ECIO for Time Out
Crossing the line
The play’s storyline: at networking drinks Stefanie wants to ask Prof. Arthur if he will supervise her thesis. Her housemates Cheryl and José are drinking shots and ask Stefanie if she wants one too. No, she says, she wants to remain sober. The housemates insist and Stefanie relents.
Cheryl says she thinks Stefanie should flirt ‘professionally’ with the professor. She shouldn’t go over the top but should definitely use her feminine wiles. Stefanie’s trousers are replaced by a short, tight skirt and she’s already quite drunk at the networking drinks. The professor soon agrees to supervise her thesis. A euphoric Stefanie flings her arms around his neck to which Prof Arthur responds by stroking her bottom. Stefanie registers this and flinches. The end.
Pressure to drink
The play is divided into scenes, and after each scene the audience is asked questions. As a bystander, would you say anything if you witnessed unacceptable behaviour? ‘Not anymore,’ says one student. ‘I did once and they had a right go at me.’ A completely different question: What is sexual assault? Silence in the room. ‘Indecent conduct’ proves to be the legal definition. And in a workshop later that evening, the question arises of: What is sex? And that is a difficult one too. ‘Anything with a focus on experiencing sexual pleasure.’
The interesting question raised throughout the play is: Who is to blame? Everyone, says the audience, including the housemates who forced the shots on Stefanie. There is notable support in the room for the suggestion that there is too much pressure on students to drink.
After the play the students could take part in other activities, including a Q&A with Mariëtte Hamer, the government commissioner for sexual misconduct and violence. She wanted to know how she can reverse this trend. By involving us, said the students.
The play was put on by the Time Out Foundation, which uses interactive activities to address current issues students face. Leiden University’s Student and Educational Affairs expertise centre was one of the partners in this performance, which will be touring the country afterwards.
Leiden students Inge de Groot (Master’s in Health and Medical Psychology) and Youp Theunisz (Master’s in Classics and Ancient Civilisations) did much of the organising along with three other students. ‘The play already existed,’ says Youp. ‘I’d heard of it and wanted to bring it to Leiden, which we managed to do.’ One of the people he approached for help was Inge de Groot. Theunisz knew straight away that he would ask De Groot. They share a love of theatre and are both activists by nature. ‘There’s no point having an opinion about things you think are important if you don’t do anything about them,’ says Inge. Theunisz nods. Theunisz and De Groot are pleased with how well the evening has gone, not least because of the full house.
International Safe Space play?
The play was in Dutch. Jasper Bitter, the project leader of the ‘Action plan against sexual misconduct,’ is inviting international students to develop and put on an English version of the play. ‘Dignity and respect is a hot topic for them too. They can show why this is by bringing their own experiences to bear.’ If you are an international student and would like to contribute, email Jasper Bitter at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Simone Both