Most female students ‘face sexual hostility’, study finds

NUI Galway research shows majority of students find sex education unsatisfactory

A separate survey found that 44.6 per cent of male students and more than 11 per cent of female students watch pornography a few times a week. Photograph: Istock

Some 70 per cent of female students and 40 per cent of male students experienced sexual hostility or crude gender harassment by the time they were finishing third-level education, a study by NUI Galway researchers has found.

The same proportion of women (70 per cent) and more than 60 per cent of men surveyed also felt sex education at secondary school wasn’t satisfactory, while lesbian, gay and bisexual students found it to be even less relevant.

The research with more than 3,500 students, which was conducted at NUI Galway (NUIG) consent workshops held at four colleges nationally, is being published on Tuesday by Minister of State for Education and Skills Mary Mitchell O’Connor.

A separate short survey, which will also be published on Tuesday, found that 44.6 per cent of male students and more than 11 per cent of female students watch pornography a few times a week.


The same survey found that 25 per cent of females, just over 23 per cent of transgender and 19 per cent of genderqueer/non-binary respondents said they would never watch pornography.

The SMART research team at NUIG has been conducting research and running consent workshops with third-level students since 2014. The acronynm stands for sexual orientation and gender, state of mind, activity, relationship and talking or non-verbal signs and signals.

One of its surveys found that 54 per cent of first year, 64 per cent of second year and 70 per cent of third or final year female students reported experiencing sexual hostility or crude gender harassment.

Some 25 per cent of first-year males, 37 per cent of second-year males, and 40 per cent of male students in third or subsequent years also reported similar negative sexual hostility or harassment. The survey took a cohort of 632 students in all.


In another survey, a group of 753 students read one of two versions of a consent story where both characters were drinking.

Some 20 per cent of the surveyed students considered the female character to be too drunk to give consent where she consumed 14 standard drinks, while 33 per cent felt she was too drunk in the version where she consumed 28 standard drinks.

Some 14 per cent surveyed considered the male character to be too drunk to give consent after 14 standard drinks, and 30 per cent considered him to be too drunk after 28 standard drinks.

The research shows that the social environment in which consent takes place among college students is often “unsupportive”, joint author Dr Pádraig MacNeela of NUIG’s school of psychology said.

It also illustrated how social norms for drinking “minimise the true impact of alcohol on the capacity to give consent”, he noted.

The research team, including Dr Siobhán O'Higgins, Kate Dawson from NUIG's school of psychology, Dr Charlotte McIvor and students from NUIG's O'Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, will preview one of a series of films on consent which they have developed.

Some four films in all will be rolled out as part of their campaign on consent, which emphasises that it has to be “OMFG” – as in “ongoing, mutual, freely given”.

Belfast trial

More than 60 per cent of students who participated in the workshops, lasting about 90 minutes, were far more positive about handling consent, Dr MacNeela noted, and NUIG intends to include this as part of its orientation for first years living on campus.

He said there had been a lot more interest in the workshops from student services and student unions after the Belfast rape trial earlier this year.

“As negative as that was, it had a positive impact on the desire for a change in culture,” he said.

Ms Mitchell O’Connor said that the research demonstrated the inadequacy of “formal school experiences” in managing sexual decision-making scenarios in the future.

"I found it quite troubling to read these reports, particularly the findings in relation to drink and consent,"she told The Irish Times.

“We all as a society have a body of work to do,”she said.

"The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment [NCCA] is undertaking a major review of the relationship and asexuality [RSE] curriculum in schools and this will examine the experience and reality of RSE as delivered,"she said.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times