High degree of sexual violence in colleges

Many students report non-consensual penetration
  • Deborah Condon

A new survey has revealed high levels of sexual violence and harassment within third level institutions in Ireland.

Over 6,000 students from 21 third level campuses nationwide took part in the Sexual Experiences Survey and according to the findings, 29% of females and 10% of males reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force, or threat of force, during their time in college.

Among these students, 49% of males and 35% of females said that they had never told anyone about the incident prior to taking part in the survey.

Furthermore, among those who had never told anyone what had happened, 54% of males and 37% of females had kept it to themselves because they did not think it was serious enough to report.

The survey also found that just over half of first year students had experienced sexual harassment in the form of sexual hostility since beginning college. This rose to 62% of second year students and 66% of third year and higher students.

Sexist hostility was the most common form of harassment experienced by all student groups.

Overall, Asian and Asian Irish students consistently reported the lowest rates of sexual harassment and misconduct. For example, 47% of Asian students reported experiencing sexist hostility, compared to 70% of white Irish students.

The survey was a collaborative project between the Active Consent team at NUI Galway and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

According to the USI's vice president for welfare, Roisin O'Donovan, the fact that the survey received over 6,000 responses "shows this remains a huge issue among students".

"We now have a lot of up-to-date information on students' experiences. The last big survey like this we were involved in was the USI 'Say Something' survey back in 2013, so it was important we updated our knowledge.

"While a lot of work has been done in raising awareness of issues around consent, this research shows a gap in knowledge of how to report, and what happens and should happen when a student makes a disclosure or report," Ms O'Donovan said.

She noted that over 70% of students who experienced sexual misconduct said they did not understand what happens when a student reports an incident to their college.

"Only 16% who had an experience said they had received information on where to get help from their institution and only just under 10% said they knew how to report an incident. These are areas that can be addressed very quickly by higher institutions and that needs to be one of the on-campus actions taken as a result of these survey findings," she insisted.

According to Dr Padraig MacNeela, a senior lecturer in psychology in NUI Galway and the report's co-author, these findings provide "a stark depiction of the experiences that many students have had".

"Over 1,000 of the female students who took part in the survey described incidents that correspond to rape, while one quarter of male students said they had been subject to sexual misconduct during their time in college.

Bisexual, non-binary, and queer students described particularly high levels of sexual harassment," he noted.

The survey found that over 40% of students had a high level of awareness of four services that respond to students affected by misconduct - the counselling service, student services, the health unit, and student union welfare officers.

Furthermore, those undergraduate students who had attended workshops, events, and talks related to sexual conduct consistently reported higher awareness of supports and services compared with students who had no exposure to consent education of this kind.

Dr MacNeela said that this is a positive finding.

"Those who took part in events, workshops, or other initiatives designed to prevent sexual misconduct were a lot more likely to be aware of supports and services.

"A majority of students agreed that their peers would be supportive if they were to disclose experiences of sexual misconduct, and trusted their college to be fair in how they deal with reports of sexual violence. These are positives, but students who had experienced sexual misconduct tended to be less trusting of the college or to expect their peers to be supportive," he noted.

Meanwhile, according to the report's co-author, NUI Galway post-doctoral researcher, Dr Lorraine Burke, the survey shows that "there is a gap that our colleges need to make up in order to respond to students' needs".

"Not only the needs of the large percentage of students who are directly affected by sexual misconduct and harassment, but also their peers - the people they are most likely to share these experiences with and who will be best placed as active bystanders to intervene to prevent future incidents," she said.

Reactions to the report can be followed on social media using the hashtags #ActiveConsent and #SES. If anyone requires support in relation to this article, contact the Rape Crisis Centre's 24-hour national helpline, on 1800 77 88 88.


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