'The risk of sexual violence in schools and universities is so widespread as to be similar to a pandemic'

We need to have a conversation about the eradication of sexual violence in schools, universities, and society, writes Vittorio Bufacchi
'The risk of sexual violence in schools and universities is so widespread as to be similar to a pandemic'
The main quad, University College Cork. Photo: Tomas Tyner, UCC.

The reopening of schools and universities is full of risks. 371,450 students are set to go back to secondary schools over the next few days, and thousands more will be going back to universities across Ireland in the coming weeks. 

The big question everyone is talking about is the risk posed by Covid-19, understandably. That there will be contagions, and temporary closures of some schools, is inevitable. But students cannot be kept at home until a vaccine is found, since a vaccine may never be found. It is also understandable that students want to go back to their schools and universities. Everyone wants them to continue their education. Some measures have been taken to keep them and their teachers safe, but there are still many unknowns.

While Covid-19 has monopolised our attention in the last few months, it’s important to remember that Covid-19 is not the only danger that our students will be facing in the coming months. Another certainty is that some of these students will experience sexual violence and sexual harassment. In fact, many students will experience sexual violence and harassments, but we will only ever hear about a small minority of these cases.

The Sexual Violence Centre Cork yesterday published its 2019 Annual Report. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but no one should be surprised by the data being reported. In Cork there were 3,469 calls answered, 1,714 counselling appointments arranged, 20 clients were accompanied to court, 197 survivors were supported through the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit process. These are big numbers, which explains why the resources at the Sexual Violence Centre Cork are always overstretched. A breakdown of this data is even more revealing.

In 2019 in Cork, 60% of SVCC clients were aged between 12 and 23, with 21% between the ages of 12 and 17, and 39% between 18 and 33 at the time of assault. Almost 93% of the type of violence reported by new clients was either rape (66.7%), sexual assault (19.3%) or attempted rape (5.8%). Last year saw an increase in those under 18 years of age accessing the services at the SVCC, and 37% of its clients were third level students. Mary Crilly, CEO of Sexual Violence Centre Cork, which has been in operation for 37 years, believes that college freshers are particularly vulnerable and the target of perpetrators of sexual violence. The majority of students don’t report sexual assault even though one-in-three third level students say they have been sexually assaulted.

The impact of sexual violence on its survivors is life-changing. The media tends to focus on sexual violence predominantly in terms of the act of the perpetrator, neglecting the fact that violence is above all something that is experienced by its victims and survivors. To think of violence as an experience rather than simply an act profoundly changes the way we think about violence. An experience is characterised by a temporal indeterminacy. What starts as an act of violence, with a precise starting and endpoint, evolves into an experience, with much broader and unclear boundaries. The experience of violence lives on long after the initial act of violence has ceased.

Sexual violence is not just immediately destructive, but it also affects our being-in-the-world, it undermines our basic capacities for making sense of the world around us. Sexual violence is not about sex, it’s an act of misogyny. Violence is an attack on the very conditions of being a self and a subject in the world. The experience of violence is perceived and internalized. The perception may diminish in vigour over time, but its traces may never fully vanish. This is the nature of violence: it is temporally indeterminate, and the pain and suffering it brings echoes long after the act of violence has ceased.

As universities and schools are getting ready to re-open their doors, we need to consider the risks posed by Covid-19, but let’s not forget that there are other risks as well. Sexual violence in schools and universities is so widespread as to be like a pandemic. A lot has been done to curb the risk of sexual violence, but a lot more still needs to be done. One of the aims of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork is to create a culture of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment and violence in second and third level institutions.

Some epidemiologists today are saying that we should aim for the eradication of Covid-19 in Ireland. Perhaps so. We certainly need to have a conversation about the eradication of sexual violence in schools, universities, and society. The spread of Covid-19 in schools and universities is inevitable, but sexual violence shouldn’t be.

*Dr Vittorio Bufacchi is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at UCC, and the author of Violence and Social Justice (Palgrave). www.vittoriobufacchi.com

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