Preparing for sexual life on a scientific base to avoid violence | Polarjournal
An artistic view of the Palmer Station in Antarctica. Image: Chloe DaMommio, John H. Postlethwait and Thomas Desvignes / NSF

The mixed gender of scientific stations raises a number of questions about relations between men and women, issues for which the overwintering staff of the French Polar Institute have been prepared before their departure this season. These included topics such as violence which has happened under such living conditions before as well as friendship, conviviality and sometimes intimate relationships.

On Tuesday September 26, at the French Polar Institute in Brest, civic service volunteers took part in an afternoon of training on health and psychology before setting off on their long assignment to French and Franco-Italian scientific bases.

Topics such as living in a community, confinement, sexuality and sexual and gender-based violence were addressed by psychologists, doctors and the national NousToutes women collective.

The French Polar Institute had invited NousToutes to raise awareness among the new volunteers about how to behave as a witness or victim, for example. “In closed spaces, at festive times when alcohol is present, sexual and sexist violence can take place”, they said.

“For example, we were informed of a man who had touched a woman’s private parts during a party in previous years, and that’s clearly sexual assault,” they recall.

This kind of gesture is punishable under criminal law. “Some forms of harassment can be punishable by two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to €30,000,” Paul Laforet, the training physician, explains.

Unfortunately, such acts are not isolated cases. In 2022, the district chief of the island of Saint-Paul and Amsterdam who is acting as judicial police officer in the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, received a complaint about an act of sexual harassment committed a month earlier by a man on a woman.

That same year, the National Science Foundation NSF had published a report about it on US bases. Interviewed for the study, 59% of women said they had been sexually harassed or assaulted while seventy-two per cent stated that the problem existed.

Furthermore, women testified to a lack of support from the upper ranks, and other complaints soon followed the report. A thorough investigation of the five years leading up to 2022 is currently being organized by Congress.

Demonstration in support of women’s rights in Lille (France), 8 March 2022. Image: Camille Lin

In both cases, the psychological trauma was exacerbated by the isolation and pressure of having to live with the aggressor. Some women report that their employers play down such violence. Other examples include recruitment problems and staff with violent backgrounds.

In response, the French Southern and Antarctic Territories published a charter on sexual and gender-based violence and harassment, vouching for the conduct of psychological aptitude tests, training, and the provision of psychological and administrative support.

The charter emphasizes the “enthusiastic, explicit, lucid and reciprocal yes” as the key form of consent, and that sexual and gender-based violence “can concern women as well as men”.

The violence meter, in green normal relations, then from yellow the situation deteriorates. “The doctor there could provide the basic tools and raise awareness, because the guide evokes concrete cases using simple phrases that everyone can understand”, explains NousToutes. Image: Centre Hubertine Auclert

“I said at the start, ‘There are only 17 girls, you don’t touch them’, because that’s the minority,” Valérie Covacho, former Kerguelen district manager, explained to Franceinfo in January.

This minority is not a selection bias, “but a lack of female candidates,” recalls the doctor. Since 1994, the missions have been mixed. “If a girl wants to read quietly on a sofa without being solicited, she should be able to,” adds the doctor.

Prevention notices should be deployed at festive times. The “safe bar” points to consent as the key element in any relationship between two people. These are cards that present the behavior to follow, when one is an active witness, in five acts: distract, direct, delegate, dialogue, document.

“It’s about engaging people to take responsibility as witnesses,” explains the collective. This means reaching out to the victim and distracting the aggressor, reasoning with him or her through dialogue, documenting the scene and giving clear orders to stop the action with a wave of the hand.

It is possible to report violence on the NousToutes collective website, on the En Avant Toutes chat and on the FranceVictime network. At the bases, the district manager and the doctor are also on hand to provide support or to file a complaint.

Welcomed with open arms

Couples will have the right to live out their relationship during their mission, but the psychologists remind everyone that discretion is a delicate thing to have towards people who will not have a relationship there, which can send them back to the emptiness they face on a daily basis.

“Before this phase, if you fall in love, you need to be kind when approaching people”, they reminded participants.

More joyful events may occur during the winter. Some, however, are strongly discouraged, such as pregnancies, as the medical staff are unable to cope with complications.

But others should be welcomed with open arms, “as a form of learning,” according to the psychologists. Sometimes same-sex experimentation takes place. Or, as in some years, a proper civil or religious marriage.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

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