Report examines issue of consent among third-level students

Young people’s ambivalence towards what constitutes sexual consent when alcohol is involved is captured in new research which shows that while the majority of college students (86%) agree that alcohol impacts on the ability to give consent, more than a third (37%) feel that a woman can still give consent after drinking heavily.

While just 3% of students agreed that a person who is sexually assaulted after drinking has only themselves to blame, 50% nonetheless saw consensual drunk sex as “a normal and harmless part of the college experience”.

The findings of the research, based on a series of surveys carried out during 2016-2017 by NUI Galway’s SMART Consent research team, provide a variety of insights into how third-level students view the issue of sexual consent and how they perceive their peers to view it.

For instance, while nine in 10 agree it’s important to obtain consent in all relationships, regardless of whether they’ve had sex before, they weren’t as convinced of their peers’ moral fibre. Only 53% agreed that “most other students” held the same view.

The research found that:

  • While 96% of 446 students surveyed agreed sex education should take place in schools, 76% said their sexual health education at school was inadequate;
  • 31% of 240 single college students surveyed would have difficulty saying to a partner that a certain sexual activity makes them feel uncomfortable;
  • 32% of single students would have difficulty telling a partner they like a specific sexual activity.

The report, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of the SMART Consent Workshop on Sexual Consent for Third-Level Students, found students had significantly more positive attitudes and behavioural intentions after participating in sexual consent workshops.

The Smart Consent initiative grew out of a 2013 research study of how college students speak about issues of consent and has since developed into two-hour workshops.

The team’s research findings were launched at Trinity College Dublin yesterday.

Dr Pádraig MacNeela, a lecturer in the School of Psychology at NUI Galway, said more than 2,000 third-level students have taken part in surveys and workshops in the past year, “placing our model at the forefront of positive sexual health promotion efforts in the sector”.

“We found that students had significantly more positive attitudes and behavioural intentions after participating in the workshops,” said Dr MacNeela.

One of the report’s co-authors, Dr Siobhán O’Higgins, said creating an environment “to discuss issues around sexuality and relationships before they choose to become, or not become, intimate with another person, is one of the duties of care for our young people”.

The researchers are recommending, inter alia, establishing a network of institutions to support the rollout of consent workshops and the implementation of a peer facilitator training initiative.

In May, the university’s drama students premiered the short film Lucy’s House Party. The film is part of an EU-funded sexual violence prevention initiative, the Manuela Programme, set up in memory of the 17-year old Swiss student Manuela Riedo, who was raped and murdered in Galway in October 2007.

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