• The Convergence

Rethinking sexual consent in universities

By Ng Qian Qian, Editor


Since Monica Baey first stepped forward online, conversations about sexual offences and gender equality have been reignited, and NUS has tried its best to stem future occurrences [1]. It cannot be denied that NUS has been taking concrete steps: NUS care unit (formerly Victim Care Unit (VCU)) has been set up, compulsory modules on respect and consent rolled out, and shower cubicles in hostels sealed.

Nonetheless, there is something deeply unsettling about reactionary policies undertaken by the institution. On one hand, some of these solutions target not the roots of the issue but its symptoms. As a female-identifying student staying on campus, sealed shower cubicles are certainly an improvement. But they may at best be a stop-gap measure and will not suffice alone: fix voyeurs, not doors.

On the other hand, my worry is that people––regardless student or staff––are not at the centre of considerations, and the complex nature of sexual offences has not been sufficiently understood. The experience of being a former student of Professor Ted Hopf, who was refused help by the then-VCU on grounds for not qualifying as a victim of sexual harassment, crystalised the metric of damage employed by the institution, and their inability to recognise the larger, patterned repercussions of sexual offences overwhelmingly inflicted against women students.


The central question illuminating the institution is often: are students hurt enough to receive help?


If we track only the biggest, bloodiest scars on students’ bodies and psyches, then we can’t see the stress fractures beneath the surface, and we will not have gotten a clear enough diagnosis of the plague of sexual offences in the university and beyond. Is it any surprise then, that we find policies inadvertently tracking and patching various forms of sexual violence committed onto students and staff, as opposed to efficacious policies that prevent them from happening in the first place?


My point is not that NUS is not trying to prevent sexual offences from occurring. My point is simply that the institution no longer has an excuse for not doing enough for its people. The institution has a duty to place people at its centre and now too a duty to learn that.


Certainly, efforts already made by NUS to prevent––rather than bandaid––sexual offences are not to be discounted. It is commendable that the school is proving to be responsive to prolific calls for improvement, for instance by meeting Tembusu students’ calls for transparency. And there will be a learning curve for any institution or person that is no longer allowed to simply sit atop webs of patriarchy; the institution is arguably learning, and that will take time.


But from Baey to Hopf, and now a Residential Assistant at the university’s Prince George’s Park Residences (PGP), the spate of reported cases always reveals a degree of unpreparedness of the institution. [2] Why do they never stop?


NUS (and other institutions, not just educational) has been too unprepared for too long. And in the words of Professor Homi Bhabha, a critical theorist from Harvard University: what does it mean to be institutionally unprepared for something that has a long history of happening?

Disgruntled and not-yet-disheartened students are hoping and calling for more to be done. We cannot stop at swiftly patching up new leaks; swift and harsh punishment are better thought of as a temporary fix.

A deeper look into the nature of sex-related offences must be had. Until we do that, we can only expect there to be more sex-related offences occurring, and more cases surfacing that will seem morally reprehensible to us now even if we don’t yet have legislation that indicate they are so.

Before I proceed, I want to caution that it is not necessarily a bad thing that there are increased reports of sex-related offences, currently understood as sexual harassment and assault. They could very well point to a more open culture that has led to the empowerment of staff and students to come forward with their cases.


We’ll do well to study the numbers being reported, now and in future, for they will always be a result of various factors: between a sufficiently respectful culture that takes staff and students’ allegations seriously and allows survivors to speak up, and a misogynic culture that breeds entitlement of men and those in positions of power (and the two overlap all too often). And so as NUS now pledges to prioritise building an inclusive culture of respect on campus, I hope we can come to fully understand the symptoms and implications of sexual offences.

Moving beyond consent

It is important to understand consent. Stop means stop, no means no, and yes can become no as the night progresses. But there are at least three reasons why ‘a culture of respect and consent’ might not be enough.

First, many of the sexual offences that plague the institution do not primarily have consent as a central concern. I’m thinking of the publicised cases of students who film women students showering, as well as the unreported cases of sexual assault and harassment of women around campus.


Asking for consent in such cases is not just unlikely and thus unthinkable, but also laughable or deplorable: we would still find it offensive and wrong if a man asks a female stranger for permission to film, ogle, and touch them. The wrong lies in the sense of entitlement people have towards women’s bodies, even if it manifests in some polite way of asking for permission to use women’s bodies to gratify their sexual desires.

I do not want to downplay the importance of consent. What was wrong in the case of the PGP residential assistant who filmed his sexual activities with two female students was that he did so without their consent. But his failure to seek consent to film them is also traceable to a sense of entitlement, and/or the fulfilment of his sexual desires through women.


Foregoing the seeking of consent in turn links to a blatant disregard for women as persons deserving dignity and their bodies deserving respect, and consent becomes the achievement of an ideal equality between involved parties.

Limits of consent


But there are relations that are inherently unequal, even if, in a liberal utopia, they ideally should be. The second and third reasons why consent (and respect) might not be sufficient, manifest in relations that are currently inherently unequal: whether they be between a supervisor and employee such as in the case of Professor Zheng’s sexual harassment of his subordinate, or between professor and student such as in the case of Dr Fernando. [3]


I can only speak in my capacity as a student, but sexual offences that are more likely to occur in unequal relationships are currently insufficiently addressed and discussed in sex education at every level.

Consent might be a futile checkpoint in these cases when the dominant party in the relationship forces themselves onto the subordinate. In such cases, consent is either not sought, or where it is given, we can substantively argue that such consent might not be valid.


How can a junior staff risk their still teething careers? How can a female student not give in to her supervisor? The costs of saying no might be unbearably high for the weaker party in the relationship. And so consent obtained in these situations will serve only to validate the perpetrator, not protect the victim, and exacerbates inequalities between the two.

But what if a female student welcomes, even woos, her professor? Would such a relationship not be consensual, even if there is something intuitively wrong with the amorous relationship between student and professor? We risk infantilising the consenting student––predominantly women––in insisting that she does not properly understand her desire, be it misdirected or manipulated by her professor.

The third reason then, for why consent might be besides the point of diagnosing the wrongness of these sexual interactions, arises within pedagogical relationships. Sex-related offences, and more innocuously, interactions along a sexual dimension, between a professor and student, constitute pedagogical failures on the part of the professor.


Even if the (female) student overwhelmingly and earnestly feel themselves taken by their attractive professor (at least at the time), professors who engage in such sexual relations harm women, not just the individual female student in question, but women as a class. [4]

Why think in terms of pedagogical obligations that cannot be fulfilled, rather than simply in terms of power asymmetry? Besides the risk of infantilising women students, who are usually already in a disadvantaged position, thinking purely along the lines of power and seeking to uncritically instill more protections for the ‘weaker’ might not always be ideal.


In Dr Fernando’s case, there is reason to believe that he genuinely felt it morally acceptable to engage in sex with his students, as seen from his published articles in defense of such acts. [5] NUS’ reaction to his case has been to codify ever stricter codes of conduct governing their staff.


The result is the (potential) complaint that female students effectively have all the power, for they can get their male professors fired. One can argue that such was the case for Professor Hopf, even though that is not the argument I pursue, and I do personally feel Professor Hopf to have done wrong.

My point is that whether or not students give consent and participate in a consensual relationship, professors fail their pedagogical obligations to give students an education by engaging in sexual relations with them.


Consent and sexual harassment are beside the point made here. Overwhelmingly, it is female students who are harmed in such relations, consensual or not, and have their education derailed:


“[There are] women who stop going to class, who become convinced they are not cut out for academic life, who drop out of college or grad school…women who stay in college or grad school, but with a diminished sense of their intellectual capacities, a reasonable suspicion of the male professors who show an interest in their work, and anxieties (again, all too reasonable) that, should they succeed, their successes will be attributed to someone or something else…[It is usually women who] have one’s sense of intellectual worth rest precariously on the approbation of men.” [6]

If NUS still holds onto its identity as an institute of higher education and learning, then it has a duty to concern itself with how its students––predominantly female ones––are having their education systematically harmed by professors-student sexual relationships.


Talking more about consent


I reiterate: consent is important. It is probably the most important metric in relationships between peers. And we’re still knee-deep figuring out how consent works even in amorous relationships, and more discussion and education about consent ought to be had.


But consent faces palpable limits, in unequal, especially pedagogical, relations. And universities and schools like NUS have disproportionately high concentrations of pedagogical relationships, premised on an inherent epistemic inequality between teacher and student.


So I hope we don’t stop talking about sexual matters and consent.


It is my hope that truly people-centric institutions can be had through a re-thinking and restructuring of our existing institutions and processes. And we begin this restructuring and re-thinking through more conversations held in good faith about the usefulness and limits of consent. So the next time we learn and discuss consent, I hope we can also be honest and empathetic in exploring its limits, and what else can lie beyond it.




Bibliography


[1] Commentary: Here’s what zero tolerance towards sexual misconduct looks like


[2] Monica Baey’s public statement: https://www.instagram.com/p/Bw6bxYSluC1/; NUS political science professor sacked over sexual misconduct; Male NUS student expelled for allegedly filming without consent 2 female students engaging in sex acts with him


[3] Former director of NUS East Asian Institute had behaved inappropriately with subordinate: NUS; NUS sexual misconduct allegations: Police report made without our consent, say victims


[4] Amia Srinivasan, "Sex as a Pedagogical Failure," The Yale Law Journal 129, 4 (2020): 1100–1146, https://www.yalelawjournal.org/feature/sex-as-a-pedagogical-failure.


[5] NUS admits it has ‘fallen short’ in handling ex-lecturer’s sexual misconduct allegations; shortcomings due to ‘conservative culture’


[6] Amia Srinivasan, "Sex as a Pedagogical Failure," The Yale Law Journal 129, 4 (2020): 1140, https://www.yalelawjournal.org/feature/sex-as-a-pedagogical-failure.