Student Puck and her two housemates, Sarah and Mus, are seated in the GR (communal space, Eds.). They are getting ready for a networking drink where a certain professor, her ideal thesis supervisor, will also be present.
In the auditorium of TU Delft’s Aula, about 100 visitors – half of them students – watch Puck, who is part of the Safe Space performance, discuss her plan with her housemates. There is first a discussion about the professor’s research followed by a pitch with her own ideas. Sarah and Mus frown at the business-like approach. Surely she will never convince the professor with this boring story? “A little ‘professional’ flirting won’t do any harm,” suggests Sarah. “And put on a skirt instead of baggy trousers.” Mus convinces her to drink a couple of shots of vodka, even though Puck has said a few times that she doesn’t want to drink.
Hand on the bottom
When the drinks are finished, a tipsy Puck starts a conversation with the professor. When he agrees to supervise her, she spontaneously jumps up and hugs him. The professor then puts a hand on her bottom. Puck feels uncomfortable but laughs it off.
‘They forced her to do something that she didn’t really want to do’
The stage is set. Who transgressed a boundary, the actors want to know. The professor, Puck, or her housemates? In a live poll the visitors almost unanimously show that they believe that all three went over a line. “The housemates persuaded Puck to drink,” says one student in the room. “They forced her to do something that she didn’t really want to do.”
The professor too gets it as putting a hand on a student’s bottom is not done, says the audience. In answer to the question if any of them would have said something in a situation like this, the audience remains worryingly quiet. One visitor says that she would have removed the student from the situation. “If I would see that someone is tipsy or drunk, I would check if everything is ok. Just check what happened and if she is ok with it.”
Vice Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde, who is also present, calls the scene a “schoolbook example of unprofessional behaviour”. He would have intervened immediately “by saying that he clearly had too much to drink and that it would be better to postpone this conversation”.
It is clear that a hand on the bottom goes too far, but what do we understand by transgressive behaviour? “When person A crosses person B’s boundaries. But mostly if person A derives sexual pleasure from it,” answers one visitor resolutely.
Another person finds transgressive behaviour ambiguous. “It is pushing the boundary of respect. There doesn’t always need to be an underlying bad intention, but if you get on with others respectfully, you don’t even need to push any boundaries.”
Apart from this, touching is not the only form of transgressive behaviour, but people can be abused verbally too. “Though these days it’s hard not to hurt anyone. You often feel like you’re walking on eggshells,” says one visitor.
During the performance, there is space for discussion and self-reflection. Such as during a ‘stand-sit poll’ whereby standing is yes and no is sitting. In response to the statement ‘someone I know has pushed the boundaries of someone else’ the entire audience stands up. Strikingly, this is also the case in the ‘I think that I may have crossed the boundary of another person’ statement.
It transpired that it was not the scene with the professor and the student that made the most impression on the audience, but the scene with Puck and her housemates. The feeling that you have to drink alcohol is recognisable. “Especially that you throw out your own principles because of group pressure,” says one student. “It is hard being the only sober person in a group.”
However, it is easier to avoid drinking alcohol these days. “Now that there are alcohol free beers, I see that students more proudly turn their 0.0% label to the group,” adds another. “We are not ashamed of it anymore.”