No one has the right to make you feel unsafe or afraid, but you always have the right to respond.
Here at Girl, Talk, we’ve realised that university can be a particularly tenuous space. Because of the highly social environment and the relationships formed around living and learning in the same spaces, topics such as consent or boundaries may be particularly difficult to navigate. That makes campus sexual harassment even more stifling and scary. But instead of being afraid, we want to connect you with the resources and options for responding to harassment, so that you never have to feel unsafe.
Research has shown that responding to harassment can reduce its serious and negative emotional impact. Even if you're caught in a physically vulnerable situation, being able to evaluate your situation and make choices about how you behave and react can be incredibly empowering. Join us as we explore different methods of making active decisions about boundaries, consent and responses that prioritise your safety and comfort.
2. Let go
You are never responsible for the abusive actions of others.
Sexual harassment and assault is never your fault. No matter what you were wearing, how much you had to drink or how you were behaving, misguided expectations do not define your boundaries. No one has the right to your physical or emotional intimacy.
There are many situations in campus that may seem difficult to navigate. You may have attended a social event outside of campus that involved alcohol or partying. You may have a friendship where the other party seems well-meaning but has repeatedly violated your personal boundaries. You may have given no verbal indication of your discomfort. So how do you know whether you should bear some blame?
To quote from Her.ie,
“If you've been sexually harassed, you are not to blame.
If you've experienced inappropriate messages, advances, or touching without your consent, you are not to blame
If you've been followed home after a night out, you are not to blame.”
Regardless of their social position or your personal relationship, there are no exceptions. Once someone makes you feel uncomfortable, you have every right to speak up. And if they persist, that’s sexual harassment. No one deserves any part of you that you don’t want to share. You owe yourself – your mind and your body – to nobody.
3. Establish your
To make active decisions about responses that prioritise your safety and comfort, you must first understand your boundaries. Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care and mental and emotional stability.
In the complex and highly social environment of university campuses, it is all the more important to establish healthy boundaries that help to keep you safe.
It is normal for boundaries to differ across different types of friendships and relationships. Boundaries concerning your physical and emotional intimacy are incredibly personal, and there is no “right” or “wrong” in determining your comfort levels.
If you are working on navigating physical and emotional intimacy, here are some tips for establishing healthy boundaries:
i. Tune into your feelings
to identify your limits
When setting boundaries, think about what behaviour you can tolerate and accept, and what behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed. These feelings can help you identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits.
Psychologist and coach Dana Gionta, Ph.D, observes that discomfort and resentment are two key feelings of red flags or boundary violations. To make sense of these emotions, she suggests thinking of these feelings on a continuum from 1 to 10, where 6 to 10 are in the higher zone.
“If you’re at the higher end of this continuum, during an interaction or in a situation, Gionta suggested asking yourself, what is causing that? What is it about this interaction, or the person’s expectation that is bothering me?
Resentment usually comes from being taken advantage of or not appreciated.” It’s often a sign that we’re pushing ourselves either beyond our own limits because we feel guilty (and want to be a good daughter or wife, for instance), or someone else is imposing their expectations, views or values on us, she said.
“When someone acts in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s a cue to us they may be violating or crossing a boundary,” Gionta said."
ii. Allow yourself to
prioritise your needs
Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls when it comes to setting and enforcing boundaries. Fearing the other person’s response, feeling guilty about saying no, or thinking that your boundaries are trivial get in the way of setting healthy boundaries.
You deserve to have boundaries that protect you, your mind, and your body. This will not only help you develop healthy relationships with others, but also a healthy relationship with yourself. Allow yourself to prioritise your needs, set your boundaries and work to preserve them.
iii. Consider your background,
your current roles & responsibilities
How you grew up, your role in your family, your role at work, or your responsibility in relationships can be an obstacle to how you establish and preserve boundaries. For example, if you were the primary caretaker growing up, you may have learned unhealthy habits of over-prioritising the needs of others, and allowing yourself to be physically and emotionally drained. If you aren’t in healthy, reciprocal relationships, with mutual give and take, it may also be hard for you to negotiate the space that you need.
Recognising unhealthy patterns and working to identify and reverse them will help you navigate the process of establishing your own boundaries.
4. Understand Consent
According to the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Singapore,
“Consent is the communication of agreement by which one person allows another person to give and/or receive sexual acts. Anything done without consent trespasses on your rights to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy. Consent must be freely and voluntarily given.”
If you’ve established your boundaries, the next step is ensuring that others are aware of them. Expressing your boundaries helps others to understand how they can interact with you in a consensual and respectful manner.
If you have not indicated consent, and especially if you have indicated discomfort, it is wrong for someone to persist in unwelcome sexual advances or unwelcome conduct of sexual nature.
In the context of university students navigating complex relationships, you may find it difficult or awkward to speak up. But there should be no shame or fear in expressing your boundaries.
If you are working to express your boundaries in firm and positive manners, here are some tips:
i. Learn to Say No
“No” is a complete sentence. You might be hesitant to say no without offering more information, but expanding on emotional labour is not necessary.
Our body’s nervous system provides us with sensations like freezing, shutting-down or go into fight or flight when in uncomfortable situations. We can recognise these symptoms as messages that tell us that something is wrong. Regardless of whether the threat is real or perceived, your body is telling you to make a shift.
If someone asks for your number, you can say no. If someone sends you an unsolicited lewd text or image, you can say no. If someone puts their hand on your waist, you can say no. And if someone makes you uncomfortable for any reason, you can absolutely say no.
ii. If “no” is too daunting, here are some other ways to express your discomfort
Sometimes, saying “no” is too big a step, and you may need to start with smaller words or phrases that help us to build up to confidently rejecting unwanted attention. That’s okay. Learning to assertively communicate boundaries takes practice. Expressing your boundaries takes courage, practice and support, and takes time to master.
If “no” is too daunting, consider the following instead:
· “I don’t like that.”
· “I’m not ready to do that.”
· “Can we do this instead?”
Vocalising your discomfort works best to convey a message directly. However, if you are in a situation where you don’t feel able to vocalise your discomfort, you can also try some non-verbal indicators of discomfort. These include deliberate actions such as stepping away, limiting your conversation responses, avoiding eye contact, folding your arms to block off your body, or flinching in response to touch.
iii. Decide your responses ahead of time
Besides setting your boundaries and communicating them clearly, decide how you will respond if someone disrespects your boundaries. Active decisions about boundaries, consent and responses will help you to prioritise your safety and comfort. For example, tell yourself: If someone touches me in a manner that makes me feel uncomfortable, I will tell them to stop. If they persist, I will remove myself from the situation. If they continue, I will take action to report them to higher authority.
Boundaries are about honouring your needs. Deciding how you will react allows you to overcome the barriers of shock to respond in the moment.
More resources on sex, consent, and the Singapore law:
5. Recognise harassment
It’s important identify sexual harassment for what it is: offensive, unwanted and unwelcome behaviour of sexual nature (AWARE). If you feel uncomfortable with the label, that’s okay – you don’t have to use it to describe your experiences. But understanding what unhealthy relationships and bad behaviour look like allow you to evaluate and respond to the situation.
AWARE identifies the characteristics and definitions of sexual harassment, which can be verbal (e.g sexual innuendoes), visual (e.g unwanted images of a sexual nature), or physical (e.g unwanted pressure for dates).
Sexual harassment is a violation of the boundaries that you have clearly laid out for yourself, and communicated to the other party. Firmly respond to harassment if the action is:
Unwelcome – If you feel uncomfortable, that’s reason enough to vocalise it.
Persistent – If the other party persists in the action, that’s
enough reason to flag it to someone else.
Compelling a person into a sexual activity or relationship against their will – If you feel unable to voice out to the perpetrator or higher authority, confide in a friend. Alternatively, call the Sexual Assault Care Centre helpline at +65 6779 0282.
Sexual harassment on campus may be difficult to recognise due to the close and intimate friendships formed between undergraduates who live and learn in the same spaces. If you’re uncertain about a complex relationship, appoint an accountability partner and share the development of your relationship. Talking to trusted friends about your relationships allows an objective pair of eyes to evaluate the situation and pick up any red flags that you might not have noticed.
In a campus situation, you can reclaim your agency, let go of self-blame, establish your boundaries, understand consent and use these tools to recognise sexual harassment.
So what are the next concrete steps that you can take to respond?