Why we need to talk about student sexual assault

Mandatory consent workshops should be introduced for all first-year students

In Ireland, like in many countries, we haven’t got the best track record when it comes to sex education. There are also many issues to be tackled in our society when it comes to sexual violence. As the nation begins to come to terms with and address the history of child abuse that occurred here, we should also turn our attentions to how adults treat one another.

In 2013, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) published the Say Something Study – the first study of third-level students’ experiences in Ireland on harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault. Over 2,750 students of all genders responded. The study was supported by Cosc – the National Office for the Prevention of Sexual, Domestic and Gender-Based Violence – and the Department of Justice and Equality.

The study found 16 per cent of respondents experienced some form of unwanted sexual experience during their time as a student at their current higher education institution.

One in five women who responded experienced some form of unwanted sexual experience, with 11 per cent experiencing unwanted sexual contact. Seven per cent of men who responded had some form of unwanted sexual experience. Five per cent of women students were survivors of rape, compared with less than 1 per cent of men.

Less than 3 per cent of respondents to the Say Something Study who had an unwanted sexual experience reported it to college officials or to the Garda Síochána. Some common reasons given included a fear they would be blamed, shame or embarrassment and not wanting friends or family to find out. Some 51 per cent of the women surveyed discussed sexual violence with their friends, but only 38 per cent of men did.

The largest proportion of survivors of unwanted sexual experiences identified the perpetrator as an acquaintance. Trinity College Dublin Students' Union surveyed over 1,000 students in December 2014. They found one in four women and 5 per cent of men who responded had an unwanted sexual experience during their time as a student.

Consent campaigns

The survey revealed a worrying lack of awareness about sexual consent campaigns, with only 31 per cent of women and 32 per cent of men saying they had heard of any consent campaigns before.

A recent survey of 333 students in University College Cork found that one in seven respondents had been sexually assaulted. This survey was carried out by a new student-led campaign called Know Offence. The aims of the campaign are to dispel myths around sexual violence and provide information on support services.

None of all of this is unique to Ireland. A study conducted by the National Union of Students in the UK in 2010 found that one in seven women had experienced serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student.

The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study funded by the US department of justice found one in five women respondents and 6 per cent of men were survivors of attempted or completed sexual assault during their time in college.

In September 2014, President Barack Obama launched the "It's On Us" campaign. The campaign resulted from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which published a report in April 2014 outlining how colleges can prevent and address campus sexual assault.

Reporting protocols

Some recommendations include the need for colleges to conduct systematic surveys; the need for bystander intervention to be promoted to encourage witnesses to step in when misconduct arises; and for colleges to identify trained people who can provide emergency and ongoing support. The administration also published a sample reporting and confidentiality protocol, as well as best practice for the formulation of sexual misconduct policies.

So what could be done in Ireland to help address these issues?

  • Ireland could follow the lead of Oxford and Cambridge by introducing mandatory consent workshops for all first-year students. USI is working with stakeholders to develop a consent campaign for students to be rolled out in this September.
  • The Government could produce standardised protocols for higher education institutions on reporting and support procedures.
  • Ultimately, comprehensive sex education needs to include awareness of the importance of consent. This should be introduced to the curriculum from primary school and reinforced all the way through Ireland's education system.
  • We need to talk more openly. Gone should be the days where survivors of sexual assault are stigmatised. We need to steer clear of campaigns with messages that lend themselves to "victim-blaming". To reduce and tackle sexual assault, we need a whole-of-society approach.

Laura Harmon is president of the Union of Students in Ireland. Una Mullally is on leave