Coercive sexual practices and gender-based violence on a university campus

20 Sep 2013

When a 22-year-old University of the Western Cape (UWC) female student was stabbed to death by her boyfriend (another student) in her room in the university residence on 25 August 2008, the entire campus was left reeling. Bringing the stark reality of gender-based violence (GBV) so close to home, the tragedy was a powerful reminder of the limits of more than a decade of legislative change, concerted activism, education, consciousness-raising and knowledge production aimed at challenging gender-based power inequalities. This article reflects on the relationships between violence, coercion and heterosexuality on a specific campus by drawing on data generated by a qualitative study at UWC that explored student constructions of heterosexual relationships in the light of national imperatives around HIV/AIDS and GBV. Involving 20 focus groups with male and female students over the course of 2008 and 2009, the study revealed that unequal and coercive practices are common in heterosexual relationships on this campus. The study underlined the necessity of understanding these relationships as produced through power inequalities inherent in normative gender roles, and also drew attention to ways in which gender power inequalities intersect in complex and sometimes contradictory ways with other forms of inequality on campus – in particular, class, age and geographical origin. While both men and women students appeared to experience pressure (linked to peer acceptance and material gain) to engage in (hetero)sexual relationships, it seems that first-year female students from poor, rural backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to the transactional and unequal relationships associated with coercive and sometimes even violent sexual practices. Alcohol and substance abuse also appear to be linked to unsafe and abusive sexual practices, and again it is young female students new to campus life who are most vulnerable. This article draws on the data from this larger study to explore experiences and understandings of the most vulnerable – young female students – in unpacking connections between (hetero)sexuality and violent and coercive sex in an educational institution.