Photographer:Fotograaf: Consent Matters Maastricht
Consent Matters: making Maastricht more consent friendly
Sexual harassment needs to be taken much more seriously in Maastricht. This is the position of Consent Matters, a group of students who recently sent an alarming email to the city council expressing their concern about young women safety, especially at night. The students hope the city will follow Amsterdam and Rotterdam in making sexual harassment on the street a punishable offense.
“Men in clubs regularly touch my ass uninvited and unwanted, especially if it’s very crowded. They assume you are drunk enough and consent, which are both simply unacceptable.”
This was one of the sixty, mostly anonymous, stories that were collected in an online story box over the course of a month. Consent Matters, born of the Feminist Society of the University College Maastricht, installed the story box in order to have “concrete cases” when talking to political parties about the alarming rise in sexual harassment and assault. “Young woman often face sexual harassment in all its forms: assault, stalking, groping, being drugged, even rape. Thanks to the stories people shared we now know where these assaults happen most and how they happen”, says third-year student Eva de Haan.
De Haan hands over to Observant four pages of selected stories, having sought the authors’ permission to do so. They deal with being kissed involuntarily, groped – “a guy put his hand on her crotch under her skirt” – sexually assaulted, yelled at or followed on the street, stalked online and pursued by men who don’t understand the word ‘no’. A striking number of stories tell of being drugged in a club: “The next day I wake up in my bed, feeling like total shit. My whole body hurts and is covered with scratches. I panic and call my friend. Turns out he found me in an alley outside the Alla with this random creepy guy trying to harass me while I could barely even stand up. (…) I’m very sure something was put into my drink in the Alla.” De Haan: “The Alla came up a lot. It’s a very popular dance club [on the Leliestraat] and has permission to be open till five or six in the morning. They have bouncers at the entrance but not exactly sympathetic ones. The Alla doesn’t take responsibility for the safety of its customers, and that’s really wrong.” Drugs are used to spike drinks to sexually assault or rob someone, or “just for fun”, says De Haan. “But it’s intentional and that’s important to remember.”
After Felicitas Lenz, studying at the Academy of Fine arts and Design in Maastricht, had a bad experience at the dance club, she came across Consent Matters on Facebook and joined the team. She shares her story during the interview, but doesn’t feel comfortable seeing it written down. “It's difficult to find a balance between speaking up and making yourself too vulnerable.”
A few months ago the Consent Matters team presented their plans to the University Council. Successfully – the rector Rianne Letschert and the student psychologists took the matter seriously, De Haan and Lenz say. “Our approach is twofold: there is a prevention and a victim care issue. We’re now working on an awareness campaign within university. We haven’t yet finalised the actual form, but I would like an interactive way of dealing with it. We’re thinking of mandatory workshops for all incoming students. Hopefully they can be integrated into the faculty introductions or academic skills training, so the students get basic knowledge of the topic: what is consent, how do you give consent, how do you respectfully engage in sexual encounters. It requires some knowledge on both sides to respect each other’s boundaries. Young people come to university and are thrown into a whole new environment; we think the university should ensure their safety and wellbeing.” De Haan hopes that the university psychologists will pay special attention to the victims. According to Wendy Geijen, student psychologist at UM and confidential adviser for students, all victims can seek help from her team. Students who are faced with undesirable behaviour within and outside the university walls – sexual intimidation, aggression, violence or discrimination – are welcome, she says.
Back to the stories. “The most striking thing is that the harassment and assault happens – not only to women, but also to men – anytime, even in the morning, while walking to university or doing groceries. And the offenders are very diverse, not just fraternity guys, foreigners or the creepy man in the dark alley.” The story that struck De Haan the most was that of a student who was sexually harassed by a locksmith she had called when she locked herself out of her apartment. He had her phone number and kept offering her ways to earn back the money she had paid him to unlock her place. “I read the story and the next day a man came into my house to check the energy meter. The only thing I could think of was ‘This is probably not a good idea; it’s a strange man, what if…” What stunned De Haan even more was the girl’s last sentence: “I know it’s quite minor, but wanted to share it anyway.”
De Haan: “There are so many who talk about their experience as if they’re lucky it didn’t end up worse or describe it as ‘not the biggest problem’. But however minor it is, it does something to you as a person. It changes you.”
Lenz: “It’s a guilt thing, thinking ‘I shouldn’t have been drinking’, ‘I’d shouldn’t have accepted that drink’, ‘I could have prevented it’, and so on. They feel ashamed and scared. That’s why victims often don’t go to the police or the university psychologists. Like the girl who was raped when she got “really drunk” at a party. She writes: “Thinking back I don’t think it’s possible to consent when you’re that drunk.” The fact that she was intoxicated was the reason she didn’t go to the police, she writes. “I’m partially to blame.”
Lenz: “You have to take a lot of steps before you’re ready to talk about it. Victims of sexual assault often feel caged.”
The municipality of Rotterdam is making the sexual harassment of women on the street a punishable offense. As of January 2018, anyone who cat calls, follows, asks for sex or bothers women in any way will face a fine of up to 4,100 euros or up to three months in jail. The same goes for Amsterdam. The students of Consent Matters hope Maastricht will follow in their footsteps. This is what prompted their recent email to the city council. “A lot of political parties are positive about it. I think it’s a signal to the city, saying ‘sexual harassment is not okay’ and a sign of support to the victims.” They also hope for stricter control of bars and clubs like the Alla, where spiking drinks is “out of proportion”. By giving other bars or venues a night license, there will be more places to choose from. “At the moment there aren’t many options for going out in Maastricht after two or three o’clock.” Lenz: “We’re trying to raise awareness, to encourage people to be more observant and sensitive when others overstep a boundary. We all have to change our attitudes.”