The Irish Times view on sexual consent classes: time to bring this hidden violence into the public eye

The experience of colleges that have introduced consent classes or workshops to date has been overwhelmingly positive

UCC students posting a mural which tackles rape myths and normalised everyday abuse to the wall of the Boole Library. Photograph: Clare Keogh

UCC students posting a mural which tackles rape myths and normalised everyday abuse to the wall of the Boole Library. Photograph: Clare Keogh

 

Research indicates that rape, sexual assault and harassment are mostly hidden problems on our college campuses. A Union of Students in Ireland report in recent years, 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. It is against this backdrop that Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor has commissioned an expert report on how to tackle sexual harassment and violence at third level. A draft of the report, to be published shortly, outlines a series of steps which third-level institutions should be required to take to help create “safer and more respectful campuses”.

Among its proposals are that students across all third-level institutions should be exposed to education on sexual consent. Third-level colleges should be obliged to record and report incidents of sexual harassment, assault and rape on campuses, rather than leaving these issues to gardaí.

Many at third-level have only ever attended single-sex schools, and the sudden availability of legal alcohol, sex, student politics and freedom can be an intoxicating mix that leads to trouble. Photo: iStock
Surveys show students who participated in sexual consent classes are more likely to feel they have the skills they need to set social boundaries and deal with unwanted sexual advances. File photograph: iStock

Significantly, the report says colleges should be judged on their progress in implementing these changes on an annual basis by education authorities, a step which could lead to State funding being frozen or withheld if sufficient progress has not been made. These steps would go a long way to ensuring students feel better informed about consent, shifting attitudes and treating everyone as a potential ally in stopping sexual violence.

Although there have been concerns in some quarters that consent classes could amount to a kind of neo-puritan preaching, the experience of colleges that have introduced consent classes or workshops to date has been overwhelmingly positive. Surveys show students who participated are more likely to feel they have the skills they need to set boundaries and deal with unwanted sexual advances. It is time to bring this hidden violence into the public eye. Colleges will need to change their practices as a result. These steps would undoubtedly help make students safer and give parents peace of mind.