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‘Open communication makes for healthy sexual relationships’

Sexual violence is widespread, and universities are particularly vulnerable environments. Creating space for open communication reduces the prevalence of sexual violence, says Agathe Cherbit-Langer, chairwoman from the Our Bodies Our Voice Foundation. The added bonus: a better sex life.

Why do you focus on sexual misconduct at universities in particular?

‘When young people start university, this is often the first time they have lived away from home. Have more freedom in their social lives, are able to attend parties and to experiment with the drugs and alcohol that may be available. Sexual intimacy is often part of these new experiences, which is healthy and natural. At the same time, many of them have had little or no sex education in their upbringing. Not everyone knows what a healthy sexual relationship is like.’

What kind of problems do you see within the university community?

‘In many environments it is considered normal to objectify women. In many student environments, mirroring the rest of society, women are subjected to catcalling, and sexist jokes such as those about rape. These behaviours often go unchallenged, either because they are not recognised as harmful, or because those who see them as such are afraid to speak out against them.’

A joke sounds fairly harmless. What makes it such a problem?

‘What people tend to forget is that intent does not equal impact. Your intent with a joke is not necessarily how it comes across to someone else. And this kind of talk often falls within a spectrum that leads to more-unacceptable behaviour or to sexual violence even. When we joke about crimes such as rape, we normalise rape as something that is not that bad, and obscure the real harm it causes through humor.’

Our Bodies Our Voices is trying to improve the consent culture at universities. Could you explain what this means?

‘By affirmative consent, we mean that both parties voluntarily and consciously engage in sexual activity, so without any form of coercion. Consent is clear, coherent, willing and ongoing. To build a consent culture, what we need above all is to create space for open communication. We do this in our training by teaching people how to be an active listener, for instance. How do you ensure that instead of projecting your own desires onto someone else you first take the time to listen properly to what they do or don’t want? Open communication and consideration for a sexual partner prevents sexual violence. Only when someone feels free enough to express discomfort can they say what they do enjoy. And that can significantly improve your sex life.’

What is the role of men in this discussion?

‘Sexual violence is not just something that affects women: men can also fall victim to it, although women, the LGBT+ community and people of colour are at greater risk. But what we do see is that it is closely related to ideas about masculinity. Talking about unwanted experiences, speaking out against sexual “banter”, talking about your mental health: these are all things that men find difficult, when a man’s voice can play a huge role in stopping sexual violence’

What does your organisation hope to achieve in the longer term?

‘In the longer term we have to realise that we are all agents of change. We typically like to think of rapists or sexual offenders as strangers lying in wait in dark alleyways, but research has shown that the majority of sexual violence is committed by someone known to the victim, in a place that is familiar to them. That may sound frightening, but it also shows that the key to a solution is in our own hands.’

Booklet about sexual violence at Leiden University

Leiden University recently published a booklet about sexual violence. It provides information on what constitutes sexual harassment and what to do if you are affected.

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