'Stark depiction' of sexual violence and harassment towards students

Three out of 10 female students surveyed say they were forced or threatened into having sex, or that they were too incapacitated to consent, as a national survey reveals high levels of sexual violence in higher education.
'Stark depiction' of sexual violence and harassment towards students

Three out of 10 female students surveyed say they were forced or threatened into having sex, or that they were too incapacitated to consent, as a national survey reveals high levels of sexual violence in higher education.

One in 10 male students, and 28% of non- binary students, also reported experiencing non-consensual penetration, either through force or threat of force or while incapacitated and unable to give consent.

A significant number of these students did not tell anyone about the incident, with many saying that they did not disclose details because they thought it was not serious enough. More than 70% of the students who experienced sexual misconduct said they don’t understand what happens when a student reports an incident to their college.

Just 16% of the students who experienced sexual misconduct said they received information on where to get help from their college, and under 10% said they knew how to report an incident.

The findings are included in the first national survey to be carried out here in the last eight years addressing students’ sexual experiences at university. More than 6,000 students from 21 institutions were asked about their experiences in the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES), carried out by NUI Galway’s Active Consent Programme together with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

In the survey, students were asked about non-consensual sexual activity, and the terms 'rape' or 'sexual assault' were not used. According to the report, when the terms 'rape' or 'sexual assault' are excluded, more incidents of a non-consensual nature are reported.

Although their experience corresponds with the legal definition of rape or sexual assault, the person answering the question might not class what happened to them as rape or assault.

More than 1,000 of the students who took part described incidents that correspond to the definition of rape, according to Pádraig MacNeela, senior lecturer at NUI Galway and Active Consent programme leader.

The full report can be read here.

While a lot of work has been done raising awareness of issues around consent on college campuses, the research shows a gap in knowledge around how to report and what happens and should happen when a student makes a disclosure or report. That's according to Róisín O’Donovan USI vice president for welfare.

She said:

In the survey, just over 70% of respondents who experienced sexual misconduct said they don’t understand what happens when a student reports an incident to their college, while only 16% again 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.”

The Sexual Experiences Survey found:

  • Just over half of first years students experienced sexual harassment since beginning college. This increased to 62% for second-year students, and 66% for students in third-year or higher
  • More than half of students with a disability reported an experience of sexual misconduct, compared with 42% of other students
  • Sexist hostility was the most common form of harassment experienced by students from all ethnicities.

The findings are a stark depiction of many students’ experiences, according to Pádraig MacNeela, senior lecturer at NUI Galway and Active Consent programme leader.

“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.”

The survey highlights some positives, he said, like how the majority of students agreed their peers would be supportive if they disclosed their experiences, and trusted their college to be fair in dealing with 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.”

The survey shows there is a gap that colleges need to address, said the report’s co-author Lorraine Burke.

“Fortunately, the Department of Education and Skills supports the Consent Framework launched in 2019, which is one of the most progressive policies that there is internationally.”

This article was edited on June 23 date to clarify the use of the term 'non-consensual sex' in the NUI Galway study.

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