Students and sexual assault: ‘We had sex. Well, he had sex’

Sexual assault at college is usually a hidden issue. This week it tumbled into the open

October 10th, 2016: Irish college students talk about sexual assault, rape and their thoughts on campus culture and consent. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

It was her first year in college and Leanne was approaching the end of her exams in 2016. “It was supposed to be a time of excitement, change and accomplishment,” she says. “In the end, it became a muddle of self-hatred and loss.”

Her male friend had been one of her best, she says. They cracked jokes, gossiped about the clichés of college life.

She knew he loved sex and bragged that he had slept with more than 20 women. “It was a case of, he’s a player, so what?”she says.

When they had sex, she says, consent never entered the picture.

I blamed myself. I was embarrassed and I didn’t have much experience. When you think of rape, you think it’s going to be the stranger in the bushes, but it’s not the reality

“Rape sounds drastic, like forcing someone to have sexual intercourse against their will. There was no yelling, no fighting, no resisting, but no was never an option.

“Whether or not I was in the mood, whether or not I was too tired, whether or not if I wanted to, we had sex. Well, he had sex,” she says.

It took her a long time to process what had happened; it was only following classes on consent at college that she felt able to use the word “rape”.

“At the time, I blamed myself. I was embarrassed and I didn’t have much experience. When you think of rape, you think it’s going to be the stranger in the bushes, but it’s not the reality. Now I know that you’re more likely to be attacked by someone you already have some sort of relationship with – an acquaintance or friend.”

Sense of shame

Rape and sexual assault among third-level students is usually a hidden issue. This week, it tumbled out into the open when the Cork Sexual Violence Centre said it had been made aware of three rapes of first-year college students since the start of the academic year.

Mary Crilly, the centre’s director, said all the victims were young women, aged 18 or 19, who were embarking on what should have been an exciting time of their lives.

“None of them had reported the assaults to gardaí. They felt they should have been able to do something to stop it... They also felt that because it was someone they knew and put blame on themselves,” she says,

Two of the students have since dropped out of college. One of the young women, she says, was not able to tell her parents because of her sense of shame that alcohol was involved.

“It has had a devastating response. Their confidence is destroyed. They don’t yet have their network of support around them in college. In these cases, they didn’t want counselling, yet. They just want reassurance.”

Far from being the exception, most research suggests that rape and sexual assault involving students – especially first-years – is a feature across third-level campuses.

The 2013 Union of Students in Ireland (USI) report Say Something, based on a survey of more than 2,700 students, found 16 per cent of respondents had experienced “unwanted sexual contact”.

Some 5 per cent of women said they had been raped, and a further 3 per cent that they had been the victims of attempted rape.

A rape takes away more than than your permission on that day: it takes your soul, your self, your future as it should have been, and you have to rebuild that future

International research indicates that students are most likely to be raped or sexually assaulted in their first year at college. It is also more likely to be someone the victim knows.

None of this comes as a surprise to college counsellors on campus.

“Rape and sexual assault isn’t uncommon,” says Treasa Fox, head of student counselling at Athlone Institute of Technology, who is also spokeswoman for Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education.

As well as the social and emotional impact, there can be huge lifelong economic consequences.

“Victims can lose their future, degrees and new life,” says Fox. “A rape takes away more than than your permission on that day/night: it takes your soul, your self, your future as it should have been, and you have to rebuild that future. It’s an awful life sentence to leave to someone.”

Counsellors say it is difficult to say with any authority whether incidents are on the increase – as there are no definitive figures – or whether there is simply greater awareness.

“It’s very difficult to gather statistics on this area which accurately represents the occurrence of rape within the first-year student cohort and beyond,” she says.

“For example, in our experience, there can be variations in what a student defines as rape, attempted rape, serious sexual assault, with the resulting under-reporting... Also timelines are quite tricky: is a recent rape within the last week, month, year or earlier?”

Many counsellors, however, detect a change among a generation that is eager to set clear boundaries and call out unwanted sexual advances.

There’s a growing recognition that what constitutes consent can be wildly complicated, frequently misunderstood, often ignored.

Bystander intervention

Universities, increasingly, are joining the campaign against sexual harassment and assault in Ireland.

Consent workshops and classes on “bystander intervention” – stepping in to assist a victim or signal that certain behaviour is unacceptable – are becoming part of life on campus in most colleges. Most of these initiatives have been driven by students’ unions.

They haven’t always been fully embraced, however. When Trinity introduced sexual consent classes for first-year students living on campus a few years ago, critics labelled it as neo-puritan preaching that would treat all young men as potential sex offenders.

UCD’s first attempt to provide consent workshops were cancelled because attendance was so low.

Most colleges, however, report that consent workshops or classes are now widely accepted by the vast majority of young men and women and are a regular part of life at most third-level institutions.

There is criticism, however, that most of these initiatives have been taken by students’ unions rather than college authorities.

“It doesn’t seem to be recognised at the upper echelons of institutions,” says Siona Cahill, president of the USI. “For example, no university has a specific policy for dealing with sexual assaults on campus. Instead, it’s dealt with under the wider ‘dignity and respect’ policies, which are more appropriate for bullying.

“So, if a student is the victim of a rape or assault, it’s dealt with by the gardaí. Yet that same victim may be sitting in the same class as the perpetrator.”

It’s about creating a cultural shift so we have zero tolerance for everything from verbal abuse or groping in a nightclub right up to sexual assault and rape

A criticism labelled at these workshops is that most are voluntary and are unlikely to change the behaviour of the minority of male students most likely to be perpetrators.

However, University College Cork (UCC) is piloting a compulsory six-workshop module on bystander intervention during the first year of its law, nursing and applied psychology classes.

Students are required to attend at least three of the six hour-long workshops to pass their exams.

Louise Crowley, a senior lecturer in law who leads the initiative, says the vast majority of students have so far attended at least five of the classes.

“It’s about creating a cultural shift so we have zero tolerance for any form of inappropriate conduct, ranging from verbal abuse or groping in a nightclub, right up to sexual assault and rape,” she says.

At the core of the programme, she says, is the message that everyone has a responsibility in changing this culture.

The bystander effect is based on the fact that people are often less likely to help a victim if there are others present, for a range of reasons such as fear of being judged.

Crowley says if you can eliminate the fear that you are the only one who will speak up, students feel very empowered. “We are seeking to shatter the false consensus over the normality or acceptance of inappropriate behaviour,” she says.

“It’s empowering students to call out unacceptable behaviour... it also shows that if we fail to object to lewd comments or unacceptable behaviour, we perpetuate a bad situation and give permission to potential perpetrators to act in this way.”

The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive, she says.

The college is now examining ways to provide access to these workshops to all students across UCC, though on a voluntary basis for now.

“Our feedback was the students felt more confident in intervening and felt equipped to make a difference... one male student said: ‘I can’t think of any reason why it shouldn’t be compulsory’.”

Panic attacks and depression

Whether there is a rise in the rate of sexual assault or rape, or simply greater awareness, is a matter of debate.

When The Irish Times this week asked readers for their experiences of these issues at third level, the response span ranged over three decades or more.

Margaret, who declined to give her full name, recalled being raped on the campus of what was then the RTC in Waterford 30 years ago,

“I left the library one evening to walk to a local garage, and was attacked by a stranger by the sports field. I was 20 at the time. I never told anyone, I was ashamed and afraid and did not know what to do,” she says.

“Years later I told my sister only. I’d lived a successful life but the horror and fear of that will always remain with me.”

Because I had kissed him previously, I didn’t think anyone would believe  what had happened was assault. I myself used the fact I had kissed him to blame myself for a long time

In the early 2000s, another female reader recalls the “unbearable” atmosphere of University of Limerick on night out. “Sexual abuse and assault was rife in my opinion. Groups of guys who thought they were the kings of the campus : cocky, arrogant and obnoxious,” she says.

“They would try everything to get a one-night stand and that included preying on drunk girls. I was groped, mocked and insulted. I cannot describe the disgusting behaviour that was constantly there. Every night out you were at risk.”

Roe McDermott, an Irish Times Magazine columnist, recalls being sexually assaulted during her early years at UCD in the mid-2000s.

“He was a fellow student. We had kissed once before. He invited me to his house to watch a DVD, where he locked us both in his bedroom and assaulted me,” she says. “I didn’t even consider reporting it to the gardaí, because it wasn’t rape, so I didn’t really believe they would take me seriously or that a case would get anywhere. And because I had kissed him previously, I didn’t think anyone would believe that what had happened was assault. I myself used the fact that I had kissed him to blame myself for a long time.”

McDermott says she ended up with panic attacks and depression, while her grades suffered hugely. “After two years, I finally suffered an intense bout of depression that led me to drop out from college for a year, so that I would no longer have to see him.”

‘Shift and drift’

Treasa Fox feels the biggest change in more recent years is that women have a greater awareness of what feels wrong. But she feels the same can’t be always be said of young men.

“There is a basic disconnect between what men feel is okay or what they’re ‘entitled to’, and the women they meet who might find it hard to say ‘this is not ok’... Or else there’s the assumption that you’ve gone so far, you’ll go the rest of the way.”

She worries that easy access to pornography online is one of the factors that is distorting many young people’s views of a normal sex life.

“What they observe becomes normalised. Over time an increased dose is needed for the same effect, so they move to more hardcore porn.

“This becomes integrated then as a template for what healthy sex looks like. With taboos around porn no longer present, it has created a new norm about objectification of sex, or sex as a commodity...” she says.

Fox is also concerned about the increased casualisation of sex and Tinder culture.

“Being with multiple intimate partners in one night is increasingly becoming the norm: ‘shift and drift’. For young people sex is becoming further removed from the context of an emotional or loving relationship.”

Rebuilding confidence

For Leanne, who declined to give her real name, she has learned to “forgive myself for the rapes”.

She feels it is hugely important that more young men and women feel empowered to identify and call out unacceptable behaviour.

She still struggles with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted, but is rebuilding her confidence, day by day. “[The rapes] were never, never my fault and rather than hating this body I’ve been blessed with, I accept every inch of perfection and flaw.”

STUDENTS’ STORIES:

Andrea’s experience
I was orally raped in college by an acquaintance at party in his apartment. He was one of the cool fourth year guys, and I was just a first year.

I went to sleep in a bed and was very drunk so my memory is blurry. I remember hearing him taking off his belt. I remember his penis in my mouth. He didn’t speak to me at all. I froze and allowed it to happen. I actually gave in and pretended like I was part of the decision for this to happen, which is so sad.

I didn’t do anything about it afterwards, never told anyone in college. I never considered going to the police about it, and didn’t realise it was even a crime. There was no information or education on sexual assault.

Years later I confronted him about it and he ignored me. He wrote me an apology a few years ago, not actually naming what he did, I guess in case I took it to the police. I heard he’d done this to other girls in college. The predators were known about but never called out. There was no justice.

Sandra’s experience
Two weeks before I started my first year I was raped by a close friend. I told some friends, but never have admitted it to my family. I never thought of going to the police.

The effect on my college experience was devastating. I was terrified of going out in case it happened again, and as a result I made very few friends in college.

I would love to end this story on a happy note, and say that I got over it and am happier now. The truth is I still can’t go on a night out without feeling terrified, and I still am afraid of making friends with men.

The 24-hour national rape-crisis support line is at 1800-778888. Call Samaritans without charge on 116 123, or text on 087-2609090; both are also open 24 hours a day

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.