Safe at your clubhouse

Student unions tackle inappropriate behaviour.
Inappropriate sexual behaviour is a widespread problem in Dutch nightlife – including in student societies. Now that there is more partying going on, there are also more reports of such behaviour. Photo Guy Ackermans

Text Luuk Zegers & Marieke Enter

Will your student days be the best time of your life, or a period you’d rather forget as soon as possible because you were harassed, assaulted, or worse? Wageningen student societies are currently exploring how they can help prevent unacceptable sexual behaviour.

Unsolicited sexual inuendo. Always getting just a bit too close. Touching you when you don’t want it. Being deaf to rejection. Most students who go out regularly see this kind of thing at some point. Or worse, they experience it themselves. Even a minor case of inappropriate sexual behaviour is really annoying. But its impact often goes much further. Some students experience situations that are so intimidating and disturbing that they are affected by them for a long time.

The Wageningen student societies, the municipality, WUR and Idealis all agree that it has got to stop. They got together to discuss how they could make Wageningen a safer place for students, on and off the campus. The initial impetus came from Amnesty International’s manifesto ‘Let’s Talk About Yes at Our Educational Institution’, a response to the disturbing results of a 2021 survey by I&O Research. That study, commissioned by Amnesty, showed that half of women students and 10 per cent of the men have experienced sexual intimidation. One in 10 women (11 per cent) even experienced sexual penetration without consent during their student years. This happened to one per cent of the men too.

Stop dismissing it

Sexual harassment is a widespread problem in Dutch nightlife – including student societies, and including those in Wageningen. SSR-W president Anne van der Molen finds it hard to estimate exactly how big the problem is. ‘Since nightlife started up again after Covid, there have been more cases reported. The exact number varies: sometimes it’s once a week, sometimes once a month, and sometimes it’s quiet for a while.’

That increased number of reports sounds like bad news. Yet it doesn’t necessarily mean it is happening more. ‘It could also mean that people are now more likely to report behaviour they find unacceptable: a change in the culture,’ says Van der Molen. ‘You can see that not just at SSR-W and other student societies, but throughout society. Complaints that might have been dismissed 10 years ago, with comments like “oh well, that was because of too much alcohol”, can now get you suspended.’

Together with Maarten van der Heide, SSR-W board member and the contact person for members, Van der Molen wrote a policy plan for how their society deals with inappropriate sexual behaviour. ‘We consulted other societies that already had policies in place, as well as institutions and confidential counsellors. Then we started talking to our members and things came out of that, such as additional protocols for running party nights. The end product is a policy that focuses on prevention, but also describes how we deal with reports and what sanctions there are if someone does cross a line.’


Preventing undesirable behaviour is a worthy goal, but how does one go about achieving this in nightlife settings? Step one: start right from the introduction days. Van der Molen: ‘During the introduction camps we invite speakers from Rutgers expertise centre, for example, to talk about this. The confidential contact persons also introduce themselves. Meetings are already being arranged for next year’s freshers, who haven’t even registered yet.’

Opportunities to talk about the subject are also scheduled for other members, such as during the annual general meeting (AGM). Then there are the “Are you okay?” and “This is how we do it” campaigns. Van der Molen: ‘We’ve put up posters everywhere. Asking each other the question “are you okay?” is so simple. Campaigns like this lower the bar for asking such questions.’


SSR-W wants to arrange additional training for the bar staff on how to act in the event of inappropriate behaviour, because they play an important role on party nights, says Van der Molen. ‘The people behind the bar have the best overview of what’s going on.’ But what do you do as a bar employee if you see something happening that doesn’t seem right, or if someone comes up to you who doesn’t feel completely safe? ‘First of all, you want to make that person feel safe again, by offering a listening ear for example. How you proceed from there depends on the situation,’ emphasizes Van der Molen. You can ask the person who is being a nuisance to leave the premises. Because alcohol is often involved, it is usually better not to have a real conversation about it on the spot but at a later time.’ There is also the Centre for Sexual Violence, an organization that has professional staff on standby in case of emergency, which bar staff can call 24/7.


SSR-W’s new policy contains protocols with suggestions for sanctions. ‘These are mainly meant as guidelines, because it is important to assess each situation individually. That was emphasized by all the agencies we had contact with on this matter,’ says Van der Molen. The sanctions described range from an official warning to suspension or expulsion. All cases are reported to the board. Van der Molen: ‘We always discuss the situation with external confidential counsellors as a sounding board, so that we don’t play judge and jury.’

After a report, there is always a discussion with the person about whom the complaint was made. As president of the student union, Van der Molen is present. ‘The offenders find these meetings stressful. They had not imagined that their behaviour would lead to anything like this, and they are shocked at how it is seen by the other person. They are also afraid of what the rest of the society will think. All in all, such a conversation is quite effective.’

Different boundaries

That people can feel unsafe because of sexually tinged remarks and unwanted touching during a night out is rarely disputed anymore. But the point is that everyone has their own boundaries and that these boundaries can differ per situation. You might not be bothered if a member of your fraternity puts an arm around you without asking, but a total stranger shouldn’t try it. Hundreds of SSR-W’ers discussed this with each other at the AGM.

Van der Molen: ‘Men in particular struggle with questions like: where is the line? Can I never really touch anyone again?’ A dialogue about this struggle is the first step, says Van der Molen. ‘It’s a matter of awareness. People start asking themselves: is what I’m doing okay? By talking about it and really listening to each other, people learn to set their own limits. We must strive for a culture in which members dare to call each other out for their behaviour.’

The SSR-W members have already presented their policy to other Wageningen student societies and the university. Van der Molen: ‘We are all looking for ways to tackle this problem. It’s good to pull together.’

KSV Franciscus, president Djoeke Dankloff: ‘Sexual harassment is an important topic, especially in student life, where alcohol is often involved and boundaries are blurred. That is why it is good to talk about it. The other day, 800 of us went to Prague for our anniversary gala. We put up posters everywhere saying, “Sharing a bed in Prague? Do ask first. No yes is a no.” That’s how we as a student society are trying to encourage a culture of consent.’

SHOUT Wageningen, board member Rinske de Vries: ‘About half of our members are students. The last time we had an incident with unacceptable behaviour was six or seven years ago during our parties. As far as I know nothing has happened since then. We have drawn up a code of conduct making explicit how we behave towards each other. Girls often tell me that it’s chill for them to party at SHOUT. It is open and friendly and at least there are no boys chasing you all the time, I get told. Maybe as an LGBTQ+ association, we are more aware of the importance of always treating people with dignity and respecting their boundaries.’

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