Monday morning at the school in Zurich Aussersihl. Seventeen young people are sitting in a circle rather than at their school desks. Today they are attending a workshop on preventing sexual assault. Three young people – Amea, Sämi and Shu – are running the morning's event and sitting in amongst the pupils.
According to a 2012 Optimus study of more than 6,000 adolescents in Switzerland, 22% of girls and 8% of boys have been victims of at least one incident of sexual assault involving physical contact by the time they reach 9th grade. About 40% of these cases involve people of their own age. This is where the «Ja, nein, vielleicht» (Yes, no, maybe) project comes in.
The «Ja, nein, vielleicht» youth project
«Ja, nein, vielleicht» (Yes, no, maybe) is a workshop format for preventing sexual assault among adolescents aged 11-18. The project focuses on images of gender roles and on consent. The workshop will be available free of charge until the end of 2021.
The project is run by NCBI Switzerland, a non-religious, politically neutral organisation. NCBI Switzerland is committed to reducing prejudice, racism and discrimination of all kinds as well as preventing violence and finding constructive solutions to conflict.
The Migros Culture Percentage supports the «Ja, nein, vielleicht» (Yes, no, maybe) project to prevent sexual assault among young people in order to promote dialogue and improve coexistence within a multifaceted society.
By way of a warm-up, the 6th-graders play a game: Everyone who identifies with a statement should stand up, the rest should remain seated. «Who has played Truth or Dare before?» 32-year-old project leader Sämi asks. Nearly all the pupils stand up. «Who has noticed a person feeling uncomfortable because someone got too close to them?» Once again, nearly everyone stands up. «Who has felt uncomfortable for this reason?» Three girls stand up.
The group then discusses positive and negative flirting strategies. «Nobody has to speak if they don't want to,» 28-year-old project leader Amea had announced earlier. But they want to. They share their experiences, from wolf whistles to unwanted physical contact. They also talk about compliments, furtive glances and how important it is to be honest about your feelings - for instance if you have a crush on someone at school. «Boys tend to have more problems with that,» the girls suspect. «It's equally difficult for everyone,» the boys counter. The project leaders also share their experiences, listing some nice and not so nice flirting experiences.
Agota Lavoyer thinks eye-level contact is particularly important. She heads a victim support unit in Solothurn. She is convinced that instead of telling them what is right and wrong, young people should be given a chance to discuss things. «Such interchange is extremely informative,» she says. Young people must also be made aware of their own boundaries because, as she points out: «They don't know them intuitively.» Socialisation is decisive in this. If adolescents hear parents or friends claiming it's a compliment when boys wolf whistle at girls, they eventually stop trusting their gut instinct anymore, which is: «I'm not comfortable with that.»
The Optimus study provides the latest figures available. In fact, victim support groups are recording an increasing number of cases. However, it is not clear why this is so. Agota Lavoyer suspects that this is not due to a growing number of sexual assaults, but because of increasing awareness. In other words, people are seeking help sooner. Young people should therefore repeatedly be reminded to do so (see box with tips, below).
The next round at the Zurich school addresses mutual consent. A funny video compares wanting to have sex with wanting a cup of tea. It shows that in both instances you can change your mind even if you first says «Yes». «If someone doesn't want something, you mustn't force them,» says John*, one of the pupils. «Precisely,» says workshop leader Sämi. «If you do, you're committing assault.»
Peer pressure shouldn't be underestimated
Many situations are harder to judge. This is highlighted by a traffic-light game in which the children are asked to hold up red, green or yellow cards in response to different scenarios. Twenty-seven-year-old project leader Shu reads out a few examples: «The girls are playing Truth or Dare. When it's Ronja's turn, they dare her to go next door and touch Sebastian's bum. Without hesitating, she stands up and does just that.» Seven girls hold up red cards, eight boys hold up a yellow one. «I don't think it's so bad if Sebastian and Ronja know each other,» one of the boys says. Classmate Nora is appalled: «It's out of the question!» she exclaims. «That's private!» A hefty debate ensues, after which the group agrees that it does indeed constitute abuse. «In Truth or Dare, the peer pressure is so great that you can't decide freely,» one of the boys concludes.
In Truth or Dare, the peer pressure is so great that you can't decide freely.
6th-grader at the «Ja, nein, vielleicht» workshop
«It's best to raise subjects like peer pressure at every opportunity. Once isn't enough,» Agota Lavoyer says. Prevention works best if it's part of everyday life. After all, adolescents often have stereotyped images of violence: «Many tend to think it means bruising. That's why it's all the more important to have everyday examples that clearly show that this too is sexual violence.»
The next example is also based on an everyday situation: It's about a girl who doesn't want to greet her aunt with a kiss, but relents under pressure from her parents. «If it's just her aunt, I don't think it's that bad,» a boy comments. «But it's bad for the girl,» another insists. The project leaders intervene: Even children should learn to show their boundaries. «If you know where yours are, you can expect others to respect them.»
Towards the end, as concentration levels are beginning to fade, the project leaders answer personal questions, such as: «Have you ever been sexually harassed?» «Yes,» replies one of the project leaders into the cacophony of voices. «I was 16 and he was a good friend. Afterwards he said, 'That wasn't such a big deal. Stop making a fuss!' It took me many years to realise that it was sexual assault.» The class has fallen completely silent.
* All the names have been changed.
«Violence and assault within sexual relations are a major issue»
Andi Geu is the joint managing director of NCBI Switzerland. He explains why the workshop is so important.
Mr Geu, which criteria do you use when choosing the workshops to include in your programme?
NCBI Switzerland is committed to reducing prejudice, racism and discrimination of all kinds as well as preventing and finding constructive solutions to violence. As such, all the projects we offer address these issues. We designed the workshop for the «Ja, nein, vielleicht» project after we discovered in other participatory projects that «Violence and assault within sexual relations are a major issue that we wanted to tackle.» Findings such as the 2012 Swiss Optimus study, for example, also show how much young people are affected by this.
What happened next?
The idea arose in 2018. The following year, in 2019, we designed everything, raised money and launched two pilot workshops thanks to support from the Migros Culture Percentage. However, due to the pandemic, we were only able to get started properly this spring. The funding for «Ja, nein, vielleicht» has definitely been secured until the end of the year. This is why we offer the workshop free of charge. If everything goes well, we'll still have it all in our programme in the summer of 2022 and beyond.
So, can interested school classes apply to the NCBI?
Yes, exactly. The workshop is aimed at young people aged 11-18. Whether they are school classes, bridging offers for 10th graders or youth organisations like the scouts, topics looking at boundaries, gender role models and consent are central issues for all.
What drives you personally?
Both in working for our organisation and within the workshop, my main motivation is about making the world in which we live a better place for everyone involved.
Tips and addresses
For young people
- What is sexual assault? If someone tells you a dirty joke or shows you pornographic pictures against your will. What is sexual violence? Unwanted physical contact. Further information and tips on how to protect yourself can be found at the following address: www.feel-ok.ch (a healthcare platform for young people)
- What should I do if I witness sexual violence? Don't look away. Form an opinion. Don't put yourself in danger. Support the affected person or get help.
- If you are a victim of sexual assault or sexual violence, you must know that it's not your fault. You can find support and more at, e.g.
www.lustundfrust.ch (the office for sex education and advice of the city of Zurich school health service. Free advice for young people aged up to 21 in the city or canton of Zurich. Questions from parents are also answered)
www.opferhilfe-schweiz.ch (free confidential and anonymous advice throughout Switzerland)
For parents and relatives: How should you react to sexual assault among young people?
- Build trust. Say things like "Thank you for telling me about it. I believe you."
- Listen and ask open questions calmly. What happened? When did it happen? Where did it happen? What did he/she do next?
- Reply factually. Young people who are sexually assaulted find strength if they are told that you would have intervened immediately if you had been there.
- Don't reproach the adolescent. Victims often don't dare to confide in an adult immediately. Don't hold it against the adolescent.
- Express order and safety. Tell your son or daughter what the next steps will be to protect them against further assault.
- Get support (see links above)
Photo/stage: Nik Hunger