Transgressive behaviour at VUB

Content warning: this article refers to (sexual) transgressive behaviour. 

It has been over a year since the media commotion about transgressive behaviour at several Flemish universities. Therefore, de Moeial decided to send out a survey about transgressive behaviour within our university. This survey questioned students who are currently studying at the VUB, as well as former students. 

Text: Hermelien Goyvaerts, Rieneke Lammens & Andreas Lorrain
Image: Andreas Lorrain

According to Rosa, a Belgian organisation that works around gender and feminism, 78% women and 41% men experience hands-off sexual transgressive behaviour throughout their lives. Furthermore, 42% women and 19% men experience hands-on sexual transgressive behaviour. Compared to 2015, the amount of registered acts of violence have increased with 36%. For example, in 2021, almost 600 complains were filed in Brussels concerning rape. 

In February 2022 (and to a smaller extent, in October 2023), a media bomb exploded when it became apparent that several Flemish universities had failed in their approach towards transgressive behaviour. Various newspapers reported that several professors had conducted (sexual) transgressive behaviour, some without facing any repercussions. Therefore, de Moeial wondered how many students had already experienced not only sexual, but all kinds of transgressive behaviour at VUB.

Boundaries at VUB

The results we share are based on the 122 responses we received through our questionnaire. Out of 122 respondents, the majority (84,4%) is a student currently studying at VUB and 13,1% is a former student. A little more than 2% of the people that filled out the survey were doctoral students or staff members. More than 60% identified themselves as ‘female’.

Whilst almost 60% of the respondents did not experience transgressive behaviour at the university, roughly 30% of the respondents did. Half of them have stated that they ‘definitely’ (16,4%) experienced it; the other half has ‘probably’ (13,9%) experienced transgressive behaviour. As such, solely counting the years at university, we advance quickly towards the percentages determined by Rosa. The remaining 10% were not sure. 

Out of all the categories, unwanted sexual acts were experienced the most (23%); followed by intimidation (18%) and discrimination (15,6%). Other forms of transgressive behaviour such as racism (7,4%) and bullying (9,8%) also occur at our university. 

Most of the people that crossed someone’s boundaries were found to be students (65%). However, we cannot reduce the identity of the perpetrators to students, as 13% of the people that carried out transgressive behaviour are staff members. When looking at victims of sexual transgressive behaviour specifically, 36% identify as women, whilst 21% identify as men. Strikingly, there were five women who stated to have encountered transgressive behaviour with, in each case, male professors.

© Anna Navrátil

Reporting transgressive behaviour

It is commonly known that only a minority of victims of transgressive behaviour share their experience with someone, let alone report it to the authorities. That sentiment is confirmed by our survey as well: 61,7% of the participants indicate that they did not notify anyone of these acts, while 38,3% did. However, the latter number increases up to 57% when the victim has experienced sexual transgressive behaviour specifically. 

Since 30% of VUB-students have similar experiences, that poses the question: are they making use of the ‘Helpline Report it’, the VUB-hotline for transgressive behaviour? Based on a survey we spread two years ago, we found that more than half of the questioned students did not know the helpline. Furthermore, about 80% did not know how to reach it and even 85% did not know how the helpline processes a report. Nowadays, 61,5% of the respondents even now do not know about the helpline. Even though we named it ‘hotline’ in our survey, it still gives a good indication as to how well-known the helpline actually is. Moreover, almost half of the students (41,8%) don’t know about any VUB-initiatives to prevent transgressive behaviour at VUB either. 

Still, the coordinator of the helpline Elly Audenaert argues that people do find their way to them: “Last year, we received 168 reports all year around. That is almost twice as many as the year before.” She also notices the wide range of transgressive behaviour: “A diverse group of people report transgressive behaviour to us: students, staff members, and even external people drop by”. Not only the group of people, but also the nature of the report differs. “All forms are being reported – that is: psychological and physical violence, sexual transgressive behaviour, bullying, discrimination, and spiking.” When asked why not everyone who experiences transgressive behaviour reports it, she stresses the importance of a safety net, no matter what kind. “We don’t know why people don’t come to us, but the important thing is that they have other people or channels to rely on, such as their friends”, says Elly. “I think what matters most is that the person who seeks help, also gets the help they need. At the same time, we know that we have to keep on communicating about the helpline”, she concludes. 

Feeling safe on campus

Students demand more transparency about the procedures and a zero-tolerance policy for transgressive behaviour. It is also felt to be necessary to change the way of thinking about interacting with women and with one another. Elly agrees: “I find it very important to speak to each other, as this can confront people with their behaviour and avoid further escalation”, she states. “Many people are out of practice when speaking to one another, I’m afraid.”

So, whilst many students (78,7%) do feel safe on campus, there are still quite a lot that have experienced transgressive behaviour so far – not only by students, but also by staff. Furthermore, many students feel like the VUB has to take more action to avoid transgressive behaviour. Elly understands that people get frustrated because it may seem that initiatives do not show enough results in a short time frame, but also nuances: “If you want to do something thoroughly, that takes a lot of time. Moreover, cultural change only happens gradually.” According to Elly, not only the helpline, but the society in general finds itself at a turning point. “We are motivated to participate in this cultural shift”, she concludes. 

You can contact following instants when you feel unsafe on campus or to report/prevent transgressive behaviour: 

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