Thursday 6 October 2022 - The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is shifting up a gear in its approach to unwanted sexually transgressive behaviour between students. With its new Grenswijs (Boundary-wise) policy for student life, it wants to promote appropriate behaviour and prevent transgression by giving students the necessary tools to deal with sexuality in a safe way. The flag system of Sensoa, the Flemish expertise centre for sexual health, is the guiding principle.
Today, the annual Kick-Off event took place on the VUB campus in Etterbeek. During this festive launch of the new academic year, support services, student associations and various Brussels organisations showed what they have to offer students via information stands. The VUB information point was also there, handing out information and gadgets with the slogan “No Way. This is where we draw the line”, to increase awareness of transgressive behaviour.
This is a foretaste of the awareness campaign that will start in mid-October via the university’s internal communication channels. In mini campaigns throughout the academic year, they will focus on topical themes such as Angel Shots, Ask for Angela, getting home safely, spiking and drugs. Cool-down zones at the campus’ party venues will be set up, and students will volunteer as stewards, giving students a place to go to ask questions, seek first aid and get support.
What constitutes transgressive behaviour is very personal. One person may experience a certain act or behaviour as transgressive or undesirable while another doesn’t. In order to clarify that individual grey area and to assess where everyone’s boundaries lie, a review of those boundaries is important. VUB aims to bring about a general culture change by creating an environment in which topics such as sexuality, consent and setting boundaries are common and open for discussion.
“We need to give our students the space and opportunities to learn to deal with boundaries of intimacy, physicality and relationships, as part of the developmental phase they go through as young adults,” says VUB rector Jan Danckaert. “But what absolutely must be present in any intimate, sexual contact between students is consent: there must be, verbally or non-verbally, explicit mutual consent for intimate or sexual acts. Consent is about the presence of a yes, rather than the absence of a no.”
Everyone is accountable
Grenswijs is part of the new, broader VUB policy plan around transgressive behaviour, You Are Not Alone (YANA). YANA aims to put maximum effort into prevention and, when transgressive behaviour occurs, into better guidance for victims so they do not feel alone. In the past six months, the university has already realised some actions as part of YANA, including improving its own hotline, reviewing disciplinary procedures, clear communication and working out the new Grenswijs policy for student activities.
This is still not enough, however, so VUB aims to realise new action points from YANA this academic year. Bystander training for managers, staff and students should ensure that people learn to pick up on the signals of transgressive behaviour and respond to them appropriately. Through communication campaigns on what transgressive behaviour is, its impact and how to raise it when confronted with it, the university is creating a community that is informed and sensitised. And with its service providers, it is working on an aligned and welcoming policy so that anyone confronted with transgressive behaviour is assigned a single trusted person to guide and support them through the whole process. By doing so, VUB wants to make its campus a safe place for everyone who works and studies there.
VUB will integrate the Sensoa flag system into its operations. This is a methodology developed in Flanders to assess sexual behaviour at case level, then react to it appropriately and curb such behaviour in the future. Staff, administrators and trusted people within student associations will use it as a guide in the policy approach to unwanted sexually transgressive behaviour among students.
New initiation framework
To take responsibility, every student association must be able to fall back on an agreement framework that clearly states what is and is not allowed in terms of relationships and sexual activity within the association. The agreements will be embedded in the VUB Student Life Codex. The rules apply to all members, as well as to non-members participating in association activities or events. These rules are non-negotiable. For example, contact that is perceived as offensive will not be tolerated.
In recent years, the ritual aspect of student union life has been under pressure both internally and externally due to a number of regrettable events. For this reason, several parties within VUB, starting from existing general rules from the VUB Student Life Codex and the rules of the Flemish initiation framework, which VUB co-signed, jointly developed a new VUB framework with clear agreements on initiation rituals. The new framework aims to prevent all forms of undesirable behaviour during ritual activities and to create a safe environment for all participants without compromising traditions.
“A student union can be a strong social support system for students. That sense of social connectedness is an important factor in students’ well-being; they draw resilience from it,” says Sofie De Smet, head of Student Affairs at VUB. “But another prerequisite of that feeling, of course, is being able to participate in initiation activities safely, should students wish to do so. The new VUB framework puts maximum focus on that.”