Build a university culture that respects consent
By Sumedha Jalote, Communications Executive, AWARE
Orientation games take place in large groups of young people who do not know one another very well. Many are anxious to establish their place in a new community and to feel included in an unfamiliar environment where they expect to spend the next few years.
Asking them to strip, or lick whipped cream off another student’s body, or do push-ups on top of another student, is grossly inappropriate in such a setting. Many students feel acutely uncomfortable with this level of physical intimacy.
However, the desire to fit in makes it difficult for them to express their objections. In my own freshmen orientation camp at SMU, opting out of such sexual “games” wasn’t easy. No new student wanted to mark themselves as a “spoilsport” or “prude” by not participating, even if the activity made them uncomfortable.
While these activities are nominally optional, they are presented as part of a campus-wide exercise in student bonding. This communicates to students, right from the start of their university experience, that pressuring peers into unwanted physical contact and intimacy is a fun part of social interaction.
Senior students and universities that promote this are building a campus culture that celebrates coercive and invasive bullying, and which disregards consent and bodily autonomy.
This has ramifications that go beyond orientation. Too many students experience sexual assault and harassment on their university campus. Many universities in the United States, for example, are facing strong public condemnation for their failure to prevent and address sexual violence on campus.
Universities in Singapore must ensure student safety by building a culture that respects and recognises consent. Instead of allowing inappropriate sexual games at orientation camps, we ask universities to teach students to understand and respect boundaries, communication and consent.
This will show students that their well-being and concerns are valued by everyone around them, and help them feel more comfortable in speaking up to authorities if they subsequently encounter abusive behaviour. Ultimately, this builds a much safer environment for all students – where respectful bonding between peers is more likely to naturally develop.
This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 15 August 2014.