Do you know about the university’s sexual harassment policy? During the past few weeks, you might have seen a notice on ClickUP asking you this question. Of the sixteen students interviewed by Perdeby, all of them said that, before this notice, they had not been aware of the existence of a sexual harassment policy at Tuks. This issue is of some importance to the dynamics of relationships formed on campus, so why is there so little awareness about it?
Elize Gardiner, Protection Officer for the university, states that the reason for the questionnaire is to establish why so few cases are reported. She says this could be because students are not aware of the policy or because they may not know what constitutes sexual harassment. “We had no cases last year and of the cases we have had, most are reported by staff members instead of students,” she says.
The university’s policy has a somewhat abstract definition. It states that “sexual harassment is [any] unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that violates the rights of an employee or student and constitutes a barrier to equity in the workplace or within the University community.” The policy clarifies this further, explaining that “the unwelcome conduct must be of a sexual nature, and includes physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct.”
One problem that comes up when dealing with sexual harassment is that perceptions about what is acceptable and what is not can differ greatly. The notion of personal space can be subjective and people may not be aware when they cross the line with the person they are interacting with. For instance, despite broader definitions in official documents, male students interviewed generally expressed the opinion that only explicit behaviour, such as groping someone’s genitals, constitutes sexual harassment. Peter*, a second-year BSc Geology student, says he has been touched in unexpected sexual manners by girls several times but he doesn’t view it as harassment. “When a girl does something like smacking me on the butt, I just take it as a message that she is sexually attracted to me. I also don’t expect her to act up when I retaliate with the same action because she initiated it,” he says.
Interestingly, when Mathulwe and other male interviewees were asked if the same rules apply when the act is committed by a member of the same sex, they were in agreement that they would be more likely to label that as sexual harassment.
The opposite can be said for the girls interviewed. Bonolo Seperepere, a second-year BSc Human Genetics student, says, “When a girl touches you in a sexual manner, it’s less uncomfortable. Even if the girl is homosexual, the fact that they are the same gender as you makes it acceptable.”
The university’s sexual harassment policy includes same-sex harassment, establishing that “the grounds of discrimination to establish sexual harassment are sex, gender and sexual orientation. Same-sex harassment can amount to discrimination on the basis of sex, gender and sexual orientation.”
Another ambiguous issue discussed was verbal sexual harassment. The UP policy states that the following constitute sexual harassment: “unwelcome innuendos, suggestions, hints, sexual advances, comments with sexual overtones, sex-related jokes or insults, graphic comments about a person’s body made in their presence or to them, inappropriate enquiries about a person’s sex life, whistling of a sexual nature and the sending by electronic means or otherwise of sexually explicit text.” But students interviewed say they have experienced this and are again wary of labelling it as sexual harassment.
A journal article entitled “Student Perceptions of Sexual Assault Resources and Prevalence of Rape Myth Attitudes” reports on a study conducted by Amnesty International. Men were observed to blame a woman for her own sexual assault if her wardrobe was revealing. When asked about this, most Tuks interviewees were of the opinion that it was not a myth at all but a valid point to be made against apparent victims.
The perceptions that students have about sexual harassment do not fit neatly into what the UP policy has outlined. Dave Ledwaba, a second-year BEng Mechanical Engineering student, says, “We live in a society where people like being victims.”
Another complaint raised by students was that sometimes, after something has taken place and you need to talk to somebody about it, you go to the Student Counselling Services only to find that the appointment book is full. “It’s frustrating,” says one student. “If you need to talk at that moment and you can’t, you’re more likely to dismiss it and try to forget about it.”
Dr Madeline Nolte, head of the Student Support Centre, spoke to Perdeby about the difficulties facing the centre. “We are extremely busy and although we never turn a student down when they need our services, it’s hard to accommodate everyone with less than 30 permanent workers at the centre. Last year alone, we had 33 000 contact sessions with students.” Dr Nolte mentions that the permanent workers are spread across all of Tuks campuses which makes evident the strain that the centre is under. “Compared to other universities in the Gauteng region, we have the smallest number of staff members working for a student support centre,” says Dr Nolte. “The centre offers a step-in service where no appointment is necessary but this works on a first come, first serve basis. A 24-hour crisis line is also available if a student has an issue that can be discussed telephonically.”
A formal or informal procedure can be followed when reporting a case of sexual harassment. The latter is more a matter of approaching the perpetrator (either done by an appropriate person or the protection officer, with or without the complainant) and addressing the issue verbally. The formal procedure, on the other hand, does not allow for the complainant to remain anonymous and an investigation must be carried out. Depending on the outcome of the investigation and the extent of the harassment, a person found guilty may be suspended or expelled if they are a student, and fired if they are an employee of the university.
Marinda Maree from the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies says that people who are new to the university are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment because they may not yet be aware of the social norms on campus. A female student illustrates this: in her first year she was groped by a fellow student who simultaneously made crude sexual comments about her black leggings. “I was new on campus, still unsettled in the environment and I didn’t know anyone so when it happened, I felt humiliated but didn’t feel that I could do anything to counter that behaviour. If the same thing happened to me now [in her third year of study], I would probably handle it differently,” she said.
To report sexual harassment, the university’s protection officer, Elize Gardiner, is available in the Admin Building, office 5-4. You can also contact her on 012 420 3073 or email her at email@example.com.
*Name has been changed.
Photo: Hendro van der Merwe