Story by| Avani Adhikari, Editor-in-chief; Xie Yihui, Managing Editor.
Picture| Love Actually.
Disclaimer: This piece contains stories of harassment, blackmail, manipulation as well as the usage of strong language. Reader discretion is advised.
Details such as names, nationality, class, major, and residential colleges have been anonymized to protect our sources from potential attacks.
In her first semester of freshman year, Divya* was invited to a party organized by some of her friends from a student club she was a part of. During the event, a fellow club member got really drunk.
Being concerned about his safety, Divya decided to walk him back to his suite. After they reached his suite, Divya walked back to her own. Oddly, however, this drunk clubmate followed her back to her suite.
“He forced his way into the lift with me and kept trying to get me to press my floor for 15 minutes, asking me where I lived, can he come, etc. I just didn’t want to tell him because I didn’t feel safe going back alone or going back with him. It was freaking terrifying because it was at midnight and no one was around.”
“I felt very guilty about this but eventually I had to [physically] shove him out of the lift and close the door as soon as I could. It was all very, very stressful.”
Divya’s disturbing account at Yale-NUS College is not just a one-off occurrence. Instead, it matches a troubling pattern of predatory behaviour that accompanies romantic pursuit on campus.
In Yale-NUS’s 2019 Sexual Climate Survey, more than 50% of respondents indicated that “sexual harassment such as unwelcome jokes or comments” happen sometimes, often, or very often on campus.
In addition, 50% of respondents received sexual jokes or comments on others’ or their own body or appearance. Moreover, almost 25% of respondents experienced someone making sexual remarks to them or trying to get them to discuss sexual matters in an uncomfortable way.
Most insidiously, almost 10% of the respondents experienced persistent harassment to spend time with someone or engage in sexual activity with them.
Amid all the conversation about consent and comfort on campus, the conversation on ethical romantic pursuit somehow seems to fall between the cracks. Though the results of the survey reveal a disturbing trend of misbehavior in romantic pursuit, it is easy to picture these instances as one-off shady happenings—where the aggressor is someone who is inherently malicious.
This perception is a gross oversimplification of the realities on campus. Aggressors are not shifty strangers in the dark. Most of the time, these actions are done by apparently charming and prominent individuals, in ways that seem benign to almost everyone else who is not the survivor. This false dichotomy is damaging in almost every case, but it can be particularly insidious in romantic pursuits where manipulative and uncomfortably persistent behavior is normalized.
Matters of the heart are never simple—there is a lot of emotional literacy and compatibility that goes into creating that level of trust and comfort with someone else. Just wanting a relationship is never enough. The person who is the main instigator for the relationship needs to be acutely aware of the other person’s boundaries, vulnerability, and level of consent.
Failure to adhere to these ethical standards opens room for unwanted flirtation at best and outright harassment at worst. This is not an attack on love. Rather, it is a possible consequence when romance develops in a school as small as ours, where students’ private space is limited.
When the student population is less than 1,000 and the power relationships between two students are more visible, when finding out where someone lives is a matter of a few Telegram messages, and when the community is so trusting that most don’t even lock their doors at night, that is when we start having a big problem where we are subject to potential abuse of trust.
The fact of the matter remains: Yale-NUS has a serious problem with romantic chase—where some parties choose to engage in manipulative, toxic, and downright harassing behavior patterns to attract the attention of their object of supposed affection.
We write this article based on voluntary testimonies and results of the 2019 Sexual Climate Survey. However, we underscore that our piece should not be seen as an exhaustive or comprehensive profile of “chase culture” on campus; we do not want to paint a monolithic picture of people from a certain gender or sexuality as predators.
But, we want to point out that the overwhelming number of particular incidents of being “chased” in a way that crossed boundaries of both personal comfort and standards of proprietary were accounts that had men as perpetrators.
This observation reflects the results of the 2018 Campus Sexual Climate Survey, where the most common gender combination for instances of sexual misconduct such as stalking, unwanted sexual contact, unwanted sexual communication, etc. involved cis-gender female survivors and non-female aggressors.
We stress that this form of gross romantic pursuit on campus does cross gender identities and sexualities. However, traditional standards of masculinity that have been ingrained in us often means that no matter how good our intentions, we, as a community, do not recognize men as survivors, and that the male survivors themselves feel the need to downplay these instances as to not appear “weak.” During our interviews, we did speak to several male survivors, however, they wished to be off the record with their experiences.
We sincerely hope that in the future we manage to dismantle traditional forms of masculinity so that men too would be comfortable sharing their stories of harassment on the record. However, this article will be primarily focused on instances of problematic behavior from cis-gender men to cis-gender women because they comprised the overwhelming majority of the testimonies we gathered.
At the heart of this issue is the misogynist principle that sees women as objects to be conquered—that a college experience isn’t “valid” until you have a girlfriend, resulting in women being reduced to objects to win over in persistent romantic pursuit.
Overstepping Physical and Social Boundaries
Among the testimonies that we gathered, romantic chase often began to become problematic when physical and social boundaries are not respected and infringed upon.
Quinta*, an alumni, recalls one such instance that happened during her second year on campus. Being in a small major, she had a classmate who was her assigned group partner in ¾ of her classes, resulting in them having to meet outside of class almost every day to plan projects and do assignments.
“He expressed quite early on that he was interested in me, and he kind of took advantage of our proximity in class to get close to me, despite me repeatedly telling him I wasn’t interested in him and didn’t want to date him,” she said. “We would meet up to work together and as it got later in the night he would get close, touch my hand when we were working, and ask me about my exes, and I couldn’t even avoid him.”
“Once, I had to leave my notebook in my suite for him to pick up and after he found out where I lived, he would come back and leave me stuff [without my consent]. He broke into my room and left me a gift, riffling through some of my drawers in the process.”
As we live in such a compact space, it almost doesn’t register to most of us that as far as our suites and rooms are concerned, those places are our intimate space that one cannot cross without consent. Since we all live in such close proximity, the boundaries between my space and theirs—my home and their home—is somehow lost to romantic pursuers.
Adding fuel to the fire is the romanticization of the invasion of private space that has been propagated by the media. Let’s call a spade a spade—leaving notes in private areas is not thoughtful: it is breaking and entering if done without consent. Following someone to catch a conversation with them is not cute persistence, but stalking when done actively.
Nattaya*, a current student, describes her experience with someone who was unable to separate the distinctions between rose-tinted romantic comedy (rom-com) behavior and real life. In her freshman year, Nattaya was at a party with her friends where she got slightly intoxicated, but was still sufficiently alert.
At the party, Nattaya states, “This one guy, [redacted] started getting really touchy and stuff which I didn’t really mind at first because it wasn’t very inappropriate. But I think not stopping him sent some very bad signals.”
“As I was waiting, [redacted] came over and just WOULD NOT LEAVE—he kept insisting that I should be taken to my suite (specifically by him),” she said in our text message exchange.
One of her friends who was with her started to escort her up to her suite. But as they walked away, they “noticed that [redacted] kept following [them] at a distance.”
“I was still kinda drunk at this point but I just started running and we took a bunch of turns and stairs [to throw him off] but 10 seconds later [redacted] shows up again which means he was chasing after us and would not leave us alone despite me being like–dude, I’m fine.”
Nattaya couldn’t tell whether the guy was motivated by chivalrous concern or malicious intentions. Regardless, the fact is that in the end he made her feel very uncomfortable and that if she were “alone, [she] would feel pretty unsafe.”
While the accounts of Quinta and Nattaya are very concerning, in our interviews we found that violation of personal space does not always take the form of suite invasion. Divya, whose story we began with at the start of the article, highlighted another incident at a party on campus during her freshman year where she felt unprepared for the high pressure social interactions.
“There was this one instance where a really tall and big guy came to stand quite close to me. I got quite uncomfortable because he was just staring down at me but then his friend came and stood behind me, almost sandwiching me, not allowing me to leave and forcing me to have a conversation with either one of them.”
To the two aggressors, their actions may be seen as benign wingmanning. However, to Divya it was an uncomfortable incident that stayed with her for years. If that doesn’t encourage us to take a more nuanced look into platonic consent, then what will? Consent is vitally important in romantic, platonic, and sexual settings, and to create a culture of comfort on campus, we must underscore it.
Exploiting Power Dynamics
A commonly overlooked aspect of romantic chase and persistence at Yale-NUS is that due to the small size of the campus, power dynamics between students—between seniors and juniors, between active members of the community and the rest—are more prone to misuse.
Adding to that, the additional spin of Yale-NUS’s diversity results in a situation where racial, sexual, and gender identities are exoticized, and the pursued end up becoming reduced to these aspects of their identity.
Mia*, a current student on campus, told us over text messages that “There is definitely a pattern on campus where a few people in each batch chase every single white girl. Some [upperclassmen] even prey on freshmen who don’t know their reputation yet and can’t be wary.”
Power dynamics in this setting are not limited to just physical markers—in our interviews we found a common trend of people whose gentle personality is viewed as a potential marker for successful romantic persuasion. Here, persistence is seen as more likely to pay off because there is a higher chance that they can be coerced into saying yes, and less likely to expose their behavior to others.
Based on Mia’s statements, we want to highlight that the people who often found themselves at the lower rung of this power dynamic tended to be underclassmen. Whether motivated by a strategic desire to succeed or by a repugnant ambition to be seen as a “big” man by their underclassmen or those with gentler personalities, predators often wilfully misuse their familiarity with the school in romantic pursuit.
Leyla*, a current student, shared with us about her interaction with Norman* who persistently pursued her and her quieter friends for multiple months through similar behavior that can only be classified as manipulative and gaslighting.
“When he needed to call you, he would touch your shoulders instead of your arms. He touched my friend’s face and inner thigh without consent on their first, or second meeting.”
“He was very touchy to the point of [being] inappropriate, very sudden and uncalled for to the point where you don’t really have the time to react. And it happened in a stage where we were not that familiar and even if we were that familiar I felt like those kinds of touching required [asking for my] consent.”
“When I talked to another guy or even mentioned another male friend he would also get very petty and pouty and [act] kind of childish.” Leyla added that this would result in a “hot-and-cold” attitude where “he [would] suddenly shift targets and ask other girls to hang out with him in similar ways he had asked my group of friends to go out.”
When Leyla distanced herself from him due to his behavior, Norman acted in a very passive-aggressive manner and accused her of “inconveniencing him.”
However, to Leyla, the most disconcerting aspect of Norman’s behavior was his targeting of specific individuals. “I was in a position [where] I had a very strong support network who I felt very comfortable sharing these [uncomfortable instances] with. Not all the people he approached had this benefit or this community they could rely on.”
After observing his behavior for a while, Leyla realized that, “the girls he was approaching were not always the most outspoken.” To her, this raised the suspicion that this approach was intentional because “[he] really [likes] to strategize about preying on weaker or less outspoken individuals.”
In a small and active campus, a third form of relational power—the power of influencing community spaces—has an even more dangerous impact on romantic pursuit. What do you do when someone you are avoiding is leading activities and policies that are directly relevant to you on campus?
Alex*, a current student, shared with us his negative experience with an upperclassman who held a prominent role in the Yale-NUS community. “In my freshman year, we spoke on and off for a while, until we hooked up. However, in the situation I felt super uncomfortable and was trying to leave when he literally pushed my head to his dick (to make me stay).”
Alex adds, “There are a lot of people that I have spoken to that found his behavior problematic, but because [of his prominence] it feels like his behavior is normalized.”
This sentiment was shared by Maria*, another current student. After a failed proposition by her close friend to pursue a “friends-with-benefits” relationship with her, Maria found this friend accusing her of using him and hurting his feelings.
After a few semesters without contact, Maria found herself at a lunch meeting with him where “he was saying things like ‘Have you grown out of your immaturity [to reject his proposition]?’, in a way that felt very stabbing.”
“But in the middle of him kind of attacking me, he noticed one of my other male friends walking to get grab-and-go (lunch) and made a sexual comment about my friend.”
“I’m completely thrown off. My friend is walking and he keeps staring to the point of making me uncomfortable. I’m like, ‘What the hell dude stop staring’ but he just says something along the lines of ‘my options aren’t limited to you’.”
Manipulative predators often engage in this type of “hot-and-cold” behavior in a way to incite guilt and pity from the pursued, a behavior we will discuss more later. However, in this instance, Maria finds that she can’t share her issues with the campus support groups as he himself is a prominent member of the community.
“Yeah, it’s quite scary because he has power and because he is close to everyone in the inclusion space. I don’t have proof of the problematic stuff that he has done—most of the times it’s my feeling, my perception—and I feel like even if I go to the diversity and support groups on campus, they will not believe me because they are all friends with him. It’s my word against his.”
“It’s scary for me to even say this story because I do not want to be perceived as a ‘fake’ victim, that I am making this all up—because I’m not.”
Where is the Right to Reject?
In our interviews, we have found that the problem with romantic persistence is that in these situations, the pursuer often doesn’t leave any room for the pursued to reject them. Whether due to romance movie misconceptions or general self-centeredness, pursuers tend to believe that because they have showered their attention on someone, they deserve their affection.
In a story shared by Nattaya, she got close with a guy platonically while she was dating someone else.
“Once school started I couldn’t spend the same amount of time hanging out/talking to him and I think he got really upset at that.”
“I thought this was just good friend behavior but I think in a weird way he thought we were ‘pseudo’ dating (despite me already being in a relationship) and me not spending time to get closer to him was wrong because [he thought that] I owed him affection, or maybe he was doing nice things because he thought that it would convince me to break up with my partner and date him instead.”
“We talked about it a bunch of times, where he basically sat in my room and called me a cold heartless bitch and a shitty friend [for not responding to him].”
Nattaya’s story highlights a disturbing trend among the male romantic pursuers on campus who picture themselves as “nice” guys and “prince charming” and have a fantasy where all women must be inherently grateful to have their attention.
For some deranged reason, instead of being ashamed of their gross desperation for a romantic relationship, aggressors somehow end up thinking that their persistence qualifies them to be the protagonists of their own rom-com, which must end with them winning the heart of the pursued. They are so assured of this narrative that you must be in a romantic or sexual relationship in college that they forget to consider that the person they are pursuing, their “goal,” may not be interested in them at all.
In other situations, predators engage in hot-and-cold behavior to incite pity and guilt in the pursued. Leyla details how Norman deflected any form of accountability when confronted by her and her friends by giving half-hearted apologies and putting himself in a self-pitying light.
“[Apologizing was] only to try to push you to pity him, and kind of humor him and meet with him again and I just felt that that was really not okay,” Leyla states.
“In my opinion, it is not our job as women to explain to him why infringing our space all the time,” Leyla said.
Leyla emphasized that the right to reject interactions with someone when one gets uncomfortable should not be something that needs to be negotiated.
For many of us, Yale-NUS is the first time we live in close proximity with the opposite gender and with relative freedom of choice. This reality to many seems to cause a misconception that just because they are living near a girl, they must have sex or be in a relationship with them. Objects of affection—mainly women in this instance—become reduced to nothing but potential sex objects to be loved, ignored, or manipulated.
Where do we go from here?
Over the past few years, through diligent efforts of student activists on campus, policies targeted towards addressing sexual misconduct have steadily improved. Though there is still a lot more we can do, the fact remains that our student body is willing to engage with the issue and address power dynamics. By writing this article, we once again want to emphasize that we are not intending to call out any specific group or individual on campus; rather, we wanted to provide a platform for the stories of uncomfortable harassment that might slip between the cracks.
In our interviews, several students around campus recognized the objectification on campus but retained an optimistic tone about possibilities of improvements.
Neha Matani ‘22 stated, “Yes, there is definitely a trend of romantic chase on campus that is objectifying, but I would like to believe that we are in a community where there are many more people who are willing [to] and do take a stand against this behaviour when they observe it.”
Charles Law ’21 echoed this sentiment of Yale-NUS students needing to take an active stand against disturbing behavior.
“To allow perpetrators to walk freely, and people with these views to be accepted by the community, is an explicit acceptance of their values. Imagine freshmen setting foot into Yale-NUS for the first time. They are powerless in the face of the precedence set by an entire community, one that says ‘This is okay here’, ‘This is an attitude that is allowed here.’”
“We have to realise that these attitudes can continue to thrive if there is not active opposition by all stakeholders and institutions in the community,” Law said.
As the sexual climate and policies in Yale-NUS are still evolving, we believe that consent culture can take root if there is greater awareness, collective action against abuse of trust, greater transparency in dispute resolution, and more comprehensive survivor support.
We commend the new dispute resolution system that was recently implemented by the Dean of Students Office. The new policies provide multiple ways of problem solving to suit the natures of different conflicts, and allow for more constructive conversations between involved parties.
Taking stock of how much we have progressed thus far should not be a glorification of the past and an excuse for present inaction. At The Octant, we want to build a platform for more constructive discussion around the issues of gender and other power dynamics deeply ingrained in our community. We hope that this article has highlighted some of the areas where we, as a community, need to do better and encourage more students of all genders and sexualities to actively reflect on the problem and expand conversations on consent and boundaries.