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Intro week — 24 years ago the acclaimed Danish author was pressured by tutors to do things at intro camp that she has since been ashamed of.
Shortly before the summer vacation, I wrote an article on the Danish-language version of this site about a sports science student who wanted to make a stand against offensive tutors’ rituals on intro week. She is tired of sauna clubs, slut-shaming, and violent intro games which, according to her, help foster a sexist and transgressive study environment.
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU WANT TO TELL?
If you have experienced sexism or any other offensive experiences during your intro programme, the University Post would like to hear your story.
Send an email to email@example.com and we will get back to you.
A couple of days after this, an email appeared in my inbox from the author Sissel-Jo Gazan. She has written Danish bestsellers like ‘The Arc of the Swallow’ and ‘The Dinosaur Feather’ and lives and writes in Berlin.
Sissel-Jo Gazan wrote that if the University Post wanted to follow up on the debate about the intro weeks, she would like to share her own story. Her story was from back in 1997, but the experience — and the shame — still affected her more than twenty years later.
As a new student on the biology programme at the University of Copenhagen, she was urged to simulate intercourse with a cucumber while covered in mayonnaise and wrapped in plastic cling film. She had to imitate having an orgasm, the tutors said, to get through the ‘night race’.
As it turned out, not everyone had to do this challenge, and the tutors had specially selected two women who they considered would be able to ‘handle it’ says Sissel-Jo Gazan.
She didn’t protest as it happened, even though she perceived the situation to be highly offensive to her. But she demanded — and later received — an apology from the tutors.
»I’m sure I would have stood up to them today. But even though I was also strong at the time, I was still too afraid to say: What the hell are you asking me to do, assholes! I didn’t dare. I really think it says a lot about how others can find it difficult to be in these situations,« says Sissel-Jo Gazan.
Sissel-Jo Gazan was 23 years old in 1997 when she was on her first and only intro camp. It was on the island of Langeland, and she remembers it very clearly. From the outset, there was this atmosphere of new students being humiliated, she says. That the older tutors would ‘show the newbies what it was all about.’
Since then, I have recalled it as a sordid, shameful experience.
Author Sissel-Jo Gazan
This culminated on the night race. At one of the posts everyone had to tongue kiss one of the tutors. Later, a very drunk male new student had his trousers taken down and the letters ‘B’ written on each buttock, so that they in combination with his anus spelled out the name ‘BOB’.
The race ended up at the beach, where Sissel-Jo Gazan and another woman were tied up in cling wrap plastic, had mayonnaise smeared all over them and asked to simulate an orgasm. The tutors stood around them cheering until the two women had acted out a climax.
It all happened so quickly, Sissel-Jo Gazan says, that she didn’t get the chance to say no. Only afterwards, on the way back to the hut, did she realise that she and the other student were the only ones who had been nominated for this task. It made her angry, she says, and feel like a kind of scapegoat.
She rushed to the shower to wash away the mayonnaise. But there, under the shower faucet, she was overwhelmed with emotions:
»I had the feeling that I couldn’t ever get clean again. I washed and washed myself. Afterwards, I called my mother and completely broke down,« says Sissel-Jo Gazan.
On the phone, her mother said that what she was asked to do was completely out of line. With her support, she went to the tutors and demanded an official apology. She threatened to go to the dean if the tutors didn’t apologize in front of everyone. This took place in a large assembly hall in front of all the student cohort, where Sissel-Jo Gazan had to repeat exactly what had happened down on the beach.
And, according to her, she received a ‘half-hearted apology’ from the tutors. Only one of them seemed to understand that they had crossed a line. One of the others simply repeated that they had reckoned that the two women were »strong enough to be able to take a joke,« says Sissel-Jo Gazan. At the time, they had all known each other for only two days.
Sissel-Jo Gazan subsequently felt that she was hated among the tutors. She felt safe in her own class, but the strained relationship with the older students was maintained throughout the period of her studies.
Sissel-Jo Gazan is not the kind of person you mess with. She has written a number of bestseller novels; has lived throughout the world; is the mother of three children. In many ways, you would describe her as a badass woman.
And she has a master’s degree in biology, which inspired her breakthrough novel ‘The Dinosaur Feather’. She explains that she grew up in a feminist environment where she learned that her body was her own, and that she could always draw the line.
When it dawned on me how wrong this was, I was ashamed that I had not stood up and set my own boundaries.
Author Sissel-Jo Gazan
That is why she does not recognise herself as the type that would succumb to peer pressure and take part in transgressive intro games. But she did. Because she was new, uncertain of herself, and wanted to fit in, she says.
Sissel-Jo Gazan does not feel directly traumatised by her intro camp experience. But it has remained with her through the intervening years:
»It has stuck with me as a sordid, shameful experience. Clearly it is only because this is something that we talk about publicly nowadays that I dare to say so. I did not do anything wrong in the situation, and I am not particularly predisposed to feel shame,« she says.
Why were you ashamed anyway?
»I lost myself at that moment. I was so busy trying to fit in and live up to the game. When it dawned on me how wrong this all was, I was ashamed that I had not stood up and set my own limits while it was happening and say: ‘Fuck you, I’m not doing that’,« says Sissel-Jo Gazan.
When Sissel-Jo Gazan thinks that we need to talk about her experience 24 years ago, it is because she wants to illustrate how difficult it is to say no. Even for someone like her who, according to herself, is pretty good at setting clear boundaries.
It is, of course, easier to talk about from a distance because she has become older and less preoccupied with fitting in, she says. But the #MeToo movement, in particular, has opened up a space for her to tell her story in public:
»When all these cases pop up now, it’s because people have walked around feeling that they had to shut up about it, and that they had done something wrong. The times have changed, and we can talk more openly about our shameful experiences and expect to be understood,« says Sissel-Jo Gazan.
She says it is a problem when you are mocked in public for not saying no. This triggers what she calls »shame with shame on top.« Because even if you get into a situation where you did not say no, this doesn’t mean that you have not been subjected to something offensive, she says.
»Can we train our daughters to speak up clearly? There are creeps out there, and it does not actually help to just play dead,« the Danish comedian Brian Mørk wrote on Twitter at the beginning of July. This kick-started a new wave where thousands in Denmark shared their stories on social media about how the situation escalated when they stood up to abuse.
»You end up feeling ashamed when others say: You should just have said something. Then it is shame with shame on top, because then you have to be ashamed that you let it happen. That you did not say anything, so others my suffer from it also afterwards. That you could have stopped it. That you are a weak person that cannot set your own boundaries. This becomes a vicious circle,« says Sissel-Jo Gazan.