Radical reform needed to tackle sexual violence in universities

Roisin Phelan

Studies worldwide show that victims of sexual harassment, assault and violence are less likely to report than victims of other crimes.  This problem becomes even more substantial when looking at studies of incidents that take place on college campuses, or with college students.

In Ireland there hasn’t been enough quantitative research on Irish universities and this topic. But from the few that have been done and from expert knowledge from Rape Crisis Centre’s across Ireland, it is highly likely that sexual assaults are an everyday occurrence in DCU and other Irish universities. And it is highly likely that these assaults are going massively unreported.

Why are only a fraction of these cases being reported? In DCU in particular I believe it is a mixture of bad resources and information, and a mentality of toxic shaming.

One factor that may certainly play a part is the prevalence of alcohol in DCU. The positioning of a bar in the centre of campus means that alcohol is often the sun in which students rotate around. When alcohol is involved, consent can never be given. However, for victim’s alcohol can mean a fear of not being believed.

This fear is based on evidence of society brushing off sexual assault as drunken mistakes for decades. It’s difficult to report a case of sexual harassment at ShiteNite when you know the questions are going to be, how much did you drink? Are you sure you didn’t enjoy it? I mean you were drunk so you probably can’t even remember.

Victim blaming it so ingrained in society’s psyche that even with education, consent classes and mass social and political movements, it still strikes fear in victims; to the point of not reporting their attack at all. In a university like DCU this air of victim blaming is furthermore inflamed by toxic masculinity.

It doesn’t matter how many consent classes are held, how many well-intentioned campaigns the SU create; they will never reach the people who don’t care about their message. These people walk about campus every day, attend parties and nightclubs and blend in with a crowd of students, but are a danger to those around them.

There needs to be a reform in consent education from an institutional level in universities if victims of sexual violence are ever going to feel comfortable reporting their attacks. Discussion and education on it need to be intertwined with academia to ensure that the entire student body is reached. It needs to be mandatory and treated as a module contributing to grades.

Sexual assault and fear of reporting is an epidemic among Irish students and the only appropriate response is serious, compulsory, practical education across the board.

Róisín Phelan

Image: Matt Preston