Lessons in consent and sexual respect

Accounts of some National University of Singapore (NUS) freshmen who felt coerced into taking part in risque activities during their orientation camp, including one that simulated rape, triggered a public outcry when they were reported in The New Paper (TNP) last month.

After saying that the activities at the student-organised camps had not been endorsed by the university authorities, NUS promised the next day to take "strong disciplinary action" against those responsible, reiterating that it does not condone any activity that has sexual connotations or disrespects individuals.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung weighed in, calling some of the activities "reprehensible", and the reports were also picked up by overseas media outlets.

Later that week, NUS made the unprecedented move of suspending all orientation camps after receiving further reports of activities that were deemed inappropriate, including one that involved students getting dunked in NUS' Sheares Hall.

The suspension has upset many NUS students, who felt that they have been forced to take the rap for a few bad hats - out of about 40 orientation camps organised in NUS this year, each of which could have as many as 20 groups of students, the reported incidents involved students in only a few groups.

Why the outcry this year? After all, reports of such activities date back as far as 2008.

Two years ago, The Straits Times reported how a male undergraduate at the NUS was made to strip down to his shorts before being blindfolded and bound with tape, with camp facilitators getting female students to lick whip cream off his body. One girl reportedly broke down in tears after feeling pressured into taking part.


Students practising dance moves last month for the NUS Rag and Flag day. Most of orientation is light-hearted banter and innocent fun. But more needs to be done to teach students how to deal with situations where sexual boundaries are breached. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

NUS then said that camp organisers were reminded of guidelines against ragging, but there were no curbs on orientation camps. Now there are even calls for a total ban on physical contact between the opposite sexes at orientation activities.

TAINT OF MISOGYNY

Clearly there are issues to be addressed, the most worrying of which is the misogynistic undercurrent that runs through these risque activities. The TNP report highlighted how a group of female students was asked to continue playing though they wanted to leave after becoming uncomfortable with a game of forfeit that required participants to re-enact a scene of a woman being raped.

Before, there were reports and pictures of men being made to do push-ups above prone females, or spitting water into their faces. Yes, these acts were probably done with much awkwardness instead of brazenness - but is there a need for putting others in humiliating positions where women are objectified? Male students themselves are also sometimes subjected to equally degrading treatment.

There can certainly be no excuse for trivialising rape.

 
 
 

Misogynistic behaviour is a problem at universities around the world. Last year, the British government ordered an inquiry into the problem of "lad culture" at its campuses. It involved a "pack" mentality linked to sport and heavy alcohol consumption, and "banter" which was often sexist and homophobic.

While "lad culture" may not be so deep-rooted here, it is worth remembering that male undergraduates are usually two years older than their female counterparts, spending that gap in a mostly male national service environment. And not so long ago some were singing an army chant that included a line about rape and which was later banned after the Association of Women for Action and Research objected to it in 2013.

Also of concern is how few at the NUS camps felt compelled to call out orientation group leaders who initiated sexist games, underscoring how such behaviour may have become normalised, and how group think and peer pressure affect university students.

Still, is the solution to ban all "touchy-feely" activities? This may repress all honest conversations about sexuality and consent by sweeping them under the carpet, and that would be the loss of a valuable opportunity to educate the youth about what consent and sexual respect entails.

It could also foster mistrust between the student body and the authorities, and result in students feeling micro-managed and misunderstood.

As the recent suspension has shown, high-handed approaches do little to improve engagement, especially with young adults who need to be empowered to make their own decisions.

The elephant in the room is the touchy topic of sexuality education in Singapore. NUS found itself caught in a similar conundrum in 2013, when students were left puzzled when a pharmacy began selling condoms on campus, only to suddenly remove them from its shelves - apparently at the university's request. It sparked a debate about whether it was ethical to allow contraceptives to be sold on campus: Doing so may be seen as endorsement of premarital sex, while not doing so could leave students exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy.

Clinical sexologist Martha Tara Lee believes that the careful side-stepping around the issue of sexuality enhances the draw of such risque games for university students. "Since sex is considered taboo, it would be precisely what they feel they could do when they know they 'shouldn't' touch sex with a 10ft pole. Sex can turn into something they obsess over," she said.

She said that there is a need to correct the perception that comprehensive sexuality education is "about how to have sex or safer sex". Instead, it also involves the topics of communication, consent and respect for boundaries. "The youth might not know the importance of consent. If someone is uncomfortable with taking part in an activity, they need to know that it is their right to speak out."

This week, Acting Minister Ong said in a written response to questions from several Members of Parliament that inappropriate activities at university orientation camps are not widespread, and while personal safety and respect for others' dignity are priorities, there is no need for draconian measures. The suspension of orientation camps at the NUS last month was a move that was taken only after careful deliberation, and lifting it after the university makes improvements would be the correct response, he added.

A quick check shows that both Yale-NUS College and NUS' University Scholars Programme (USP) have guidelines about sexual conduct and respect on their websites.

USP, for instance, defined disrespect for others' sexual boundaries to include "unwelcome sexual advances, whether they involve physical touching or not", as well as "persistent and unwanted requests for dates". Yale-NUS College also lists sexual harassment as involving "unwelcome sexual jokes or epithets, unwelcome physical contact, unwelcome sexually explicit statements", among others.

These are steps in the right direction. Many of the questionable orientation activities highlighted in media reports display an ignorance of the need to respect consent and sexual boundaries. Most of orientation is light-hearted banter and innocent fun. But more needs to be done to teach students how to deal with situations where such boundaries are breached. Any act that makes others uncomfortable is one to think twice about.

There should never be a cap on respect.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons in consent and sexual respect'. Print Edition | Subscribe