Sexual harassment hiding in the shadows of Irish universities

Róisín Phelan

The recent destroying of a consent display in DCU’s U building has ignited a discussion on campus and online about students’ understanding of consent, harassment and sexual violence. 

In 2018, 362 school or college students attended Sexual Assault Trauma Units in the Republic of Ireland.

Sexual Assault Treatment Units (SATUs) provide clinical, forensic and supportive care for those who have experienced sexual violence.According to a study carried out by Brook using the Dig-In database, over half of the UK student population have experienced sexual assault or harassment of some kind, but only a fraction of that reported it.

56 per cent of respondents said they had encountered unwelcome sexual behaviour, including inappropriate touching, explicit messages, catcalling, being followed and being forced into sex or sexual acts.

Only 8 per cent of respondents reported their incidents to police or to their university.

49 per cent of women said that they had been touched inappropriately. Only 4 per cent of those actually reported it and only a quarter of students who were forced into having sex went on to report it.

The study also covered the topic of consent, finding that only 15 per cent of students realised what behaviours counted as sexual harassment and only 52 per cent understood that it is not possible to give consent if you are drunk.

UK and Irish universities are similar in many aspects, academically and socially and so although no specific research has been done on the number of incidents reported in Irish universities, it is possible that the UK statistics are a reflection of what Ireland’s would be.

One piece of Irish research is a 2018 SMART Consent Report from NUI Galway.

The report quantified incidents of sexual harassment and violence among its students. It is one of the only studies of its kind in Ireland. In its research of student experiences of sexual harassment, it only references female students.

It found that 51 per cent of student females in third year or above (third year +) had been touched in a way that felt uncomfortable since they started college.

41 per cent had experienced unwanted attempts to be stroked, fondled or kissed. This number increased to 57 per cent in third years or above.

22 per cent of third years + had felt threatened with retaliation for not being sexually cooperative and 27 per cent experienced being “treated badly” for having refused to have sex.

2015 research in NUI Galway by Dr Elaine Byrnes also found that over one year, 8 per cent of females and 3 per cent of males were certain of experiencing sexual contact “that they weren’t able to give consent or stop what was happening” due to being “passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep.”

Whether any of these individuals reported their cases to NUIG or to the authorities is unknown.

According to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s (DRCC) Campaigns and Communications Manager, Yvonne Woods: “A large percentage of callers to the National Helpline we operate and of our therapy/counselling clients are in the college-going age range , yet the number of people reporting in colleges is in single digits, which implies many are not reporting in their colleges.”

However their is little concrete data on the subject.

DRCC Youth Programme Coordinator Caitríona Freir told The College View: “All of the colleges in Ireland have differing policies regarding this issue but there has been a considerable coordinated response through the ESHTE Project over the past number of years.”

ESHTE or Ending Sexual Harassment and Violence in Third-Level Education is a project aimed at preventing and combating sexual violence and harassment and building a culture of zero tolerance in third- level education throughout Europe.

It is funded by the European Commission and has seen the implementation of the “It Stops Now” campaign across Irish college campuses.

This February DCU unveiled a mural in support of the It Stops Now campaign on the Henry Grattan Building of its Glasnevin Campus.

The mural included posters saying, “Believe and support survivors”, “Don’t stand by speak up”, and “Always ask consent”.

DCU’s website advises any student who is being sexually harassed by another student or member of staff to tell the harasser that their behaviour is not welcome, ask them to stop, report the matter as soon as possible to an appropriate person and keep a record of individual incidents as they occur.

University College Dublin have launched their own  anonymous reporting tool called “Report + Support” which allows UCD students, staff and visitors to report cases on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.

The tool allows individuals to make anonymous reports or formal complaints, with access to supports after each.

The Union of Students in Ireland are currently running a Sexual Experiences Survey on their website. It is a comprehensive survey asking students about their knowledge of consent, their education on sexual health and their experiences of sexual harassment including whether they reported any incidents they have been involved in.

When published, the information from this survey could  show exactly how many students are reporting their assaults and how many are not. Painting a better picture of the reality of sexual harassment and violence in Irish universities.

Róisín Phelan

Image Credit: Chloe Rooney