NUSPA’s Social Policy Focus Group Discussion
By Ng Qian Qian, Editor
NUSPA’s Social Policy Focus Group Discussion took place on 10th December 2020. Fresh from the string of controversies, the discussion saw some twenty concerned students gathered online to discuss the timely topic of sexual harassment.
Amidst the shock and anger some students felt about the recent string of cases of sexual harassment, one participant noted that the sensationalism of such cases by news outlets might not have indicated a recent spike in the number of offenses. It could have signalled a move towards a culture of transparency where perhaps more cases are being reported by victims and addressed and made public by the school. Another participant suggested that the number of cases may not have changed, but that more attention is being cast onto these matters.
The discussion then shifted to the topic of consent. A recurring theme was that consent is only negatively defined by the law, thus there exists no strict definition of consent. Students also discussed what a positive definition of consent would look like, and there was a general consensus that consent will inevitably be interpreted differently by different parties, under dissimilar circumstances. Until we can derive a near universal, abstract principle of consent, one participant shared A.W.A.R.E.’s guidelines for consent, helpfully abbreviated “FRIES”: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, Specific.
Participants also expressed wishes for more sincere sexual education, including possible reforms for the current university-wide module on A Culture of Respect and Consent, RC1000A. One participant pointed out that pre-tertiary sex education in schools centered heavily on abstinence, covering no issues that trouble our tertiary institutions today. For instance, it was suggested that stigma against reporting sexual crimes against oneself should be eroded through education from a young age, that students should be told it is alright to report crimes committed against them.
Another problem that troubled participants was the nature of the investigation processes. More than one participant expressed wishes that increased sensitivity be exercised. Though participants also pointed out that they will not be able to imagine what victims go through (if they have not been one) via second-hand recounts, one common difficulty is that victims tend to not be sure whether they have been sexually assaulted or harassed. On this front, participants agreed that clearer guidelines on what constitutes sexual assault and harassment will be helpful for victims, referencing A.W.A.R.E.’s suggestion that sexual assault may be assessed more constructively from the impact left on the victim, as opposed to discerning the perpetrator’s intention.
A few participants shared their experiences from being (trained as) first respondents, especially on protocols for handling sexual assault cases. Where victims may perceive gaslighting, investigators may simply be carrying out established protocol that ensures consistency across various cases. In fact, investigators tend to empathise with potential victims or even with both parties, but are obliged to be impartial. Until investigations are well underway, the first responder cannot ascribe the involved party the label of ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator’.
Nevertheless, another participant noted that reports of traumatising investigations should be taken seriously - between the objectivity of investigative processes we desire and the welfare of potential victims, the hope is that we can find a safe, reflexive space that can meet both needs. Perhaps most pressing is to ensure that the current processes of fact collection are impartial and sensitive to emotional needs, especially to those of the victims.
To that end, the students suggested that guaranteeing the presence of a social worker or civilian officer as mediator for the questioning procedure could facilitate the process in a more sensitive manner, but this measure has already been implemented by NUS via the Victim Care Unit (VCU).
Though participants were concerned about whether the VCU would prioritise students’ interests in cases where they may clash with the school’s, many were hopeful that NUS will move towards setting up more student-centric institutions to deal with these pressing issues. However, there is also widespread acknowledgement that conceiving these truly student-centric institutions will be yet another foreseeable issue that will require the dedication of more resources and planning.