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22 February 2024

Student Life
& Society

‘Sex education for all first year students’

Sexually transgressive behaviour is more common than higher education institutions realise, warns government commissioner Mariëtte Hamer, who is calling for sex education for first-year students. According to Hamer, “That’s when they start experimenting.”

In preparing a new recommendation to the government, Mariëtte Hamer spoke to both victims and perpetrators of sexually transgressive behaviour and sexual violence in higher education. She also spoke to students, experts and representatives of higher education institutions.

As a special government commissioner tasked with combatting sexually transgressive behaviour and sexual violence, Hamer has been advising the government since 2022. She was appointed in response to the widely publicised allegations of sexual misconduct behind the scenes at the TV programme The Voice of Holland.

In her recommendation, which was published today, Hamer sets out the problems in higher education. She also argues that the low number of formal reports being filed – just 300 in 2022 – does not reflect reality. According to her, there is a “worrying discrepancy between the number of reports and the (estimated) actual number of incidents”.

Half of young women

As Hamer writes in her letter to the government: “Half of women aged 18 to 24 experienced some form of sexually transgressive behaviour last year.”

Although these incidents usually don’t happen on campus, many of them do. In other instances, the perpetrators are fellow students, meaning the institution in question has a role to play regardless of where the misconduct occurred. But none of this is evident from the limited number of formal complaints.

The response to a report of sexually transgressive behaviour or sexual violence is often rather procedural and legalistic, and aftercare for victims is “minimal or absent”, Hamer writes. As a result, complaint procedures sometimes do victims more harm than good.

Moreover, a variety of factors increase the risk of problems, such as strong hierarchies, one-to-one working relationships, uncertainty due to temporary contracts, high workloads and cutthroat competition. At universities, PhD students and postdocs in particular suffer the consequences of this working climate, Hamer notes.

Training and duty of care

Hamer recommends providing training and supervision, raising awareness, emphasising the duty of care institutions have towards their students, holding meetings and conducting risk assessments to achieve a culture change. In addition, ‘relationship and sex education’ should be given a permanent place in all curricula, and the position of PhD students and postdocs should be improved.

This does raise a question: how much time should institutions spend on such classes, meetings and supervision? That is beside the point, Hamer said in response to the Higher Education Press Agency. “We are already spending a lot of time on this, fixing problems that could have been prevented. Institutions can even lose talented employees when things go wrong, for instance when PhD student are so disappointed that they leave academia.”

So when should these meetings and classes be scheduled? Sex education can be taught in the first year, says Hamer. “Because that’s when students start experimenting. They are still very much discovering who they are, and developing. It shouldn’t take long to prepare these classes, as there are many existing initiatives that programmes could exchange.”

But what about all the meetings employees will need to have, and the training courses they will have to attend? It stands to reason that a culture change like this will take up more time in the beginning, says Hamer. “And once you’ve decided how people should interact with each other, this should be coded into the DNA of the institution. Then you can keep coming back to that to see if things are still going the way they should.”

Aftercare

Ultimately, healthy workplace behaviour should become a matter of habit, Hamer believes. That way, the issue won’t take up time anymore either – it would simply be unacceptable to make nasty comments or belittle someone.

With regard to complaints, higher education institutions shouldn’t think that setting up a procedure is enough, says Hamer. “Aftercare is really important. You have to make sure that reporting procedures are conducive to the culture change, and that they don’t discourage people.”

Meanwhile, the government that created Hamer’s post has stepped down. How does she view the shifting political landscape? According to Hamer, the recent developments have no bearing on the fight against sexually transgressive behaviour. “This issue isn’t tied to any political movement. Nobody wants to ignore these problems.”

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