Changing attitudes to consent and harassment at third-level institutions

Kasey Leigh McCrudden

It’s the age-old scene; a young woman walks swiftly down a darkly lit path, keys clutched in hand, head down, scurrying to reach some far away destination as she looks fearfully over her shoulder at the growing sense that something dangerous is following nearby. 

But this isn’t a movie. This is the harsh reality of some students’ experiences at university. 

The real danger, however, isn’t necessarily an axe-murderer on a stormy night, but perhaps instead an uneducated, intrusive peer in the campus bar.

New initiatives and training are being rolled out into Irish third-level institutions this year, following revelations surrounding sexual harassment and assault on some university campuses.

“So much of the conversation around consent and sexual violence or harassment is underground,” said Dean O’Reilly, DCU Students’ Union’s Vice President for Welfare and Equality.

“It is inherently a societal problem we’re dealing with here, no institution is immune,” he said.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Sexual Experience Survey 2020 found that almost 40 per cent of female students admitted to having experienced some form of sexual assault or inappropriate touching during their first year at university.

Last year The Irish Times uncovered that over 350 cases of sexual harassment had been reported to UCD Students’ Union in 2018/19. 

However, few of these cases were officially reported to the college due to a rather lengthy formal complaints procedure.

Sexual harassment also proved just as prevalent among the staff at UCD. Well-known academic and lecturer Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin spoke to The Irish Times in September about her two-year ordeal of harassment at work, and how it made her time on campus extremely unsettling. 

“The mental energy that it took, I really felt that it impacted on me personally, but on my professional work as well because you just couldn’t concentrate properly for all that time,” she told The Irish Times.

Ní Shúilleabháin eventually applied for a court-issued barring order against her colleague Professor Hans-Benjamin Braun, who subsequently left the university.

Another member of UCD faculty, Professor Kathleen James-Chakraborty, expressed her dissatisfaction that the university wasn’t living up to their policies on discrimination and harassment when she quit UCD’s Gender Equality Action Group in October of last year.

In response to the condemning number of harassment cases, Chief Executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Noeline Blackwell was appointed to UCD’s governing authority.

“Our perception in the Rape Crisis Centre is that it is a very damaging malfunction within university society… damaging to those who have been abused, the institution itself, and to all of us as a society,” she told the Irish Times.

This year UCD have established a “Report and Support” facility whereby students, staff and visitors can anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment or assault. 

Consent workshops and bystander training have also been implemented in UCD and many other leading third-level institutes as part of the government’s “Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions.”

“This year for the first time in UCD, a 90-minute mandatory bystander training course will be provided to all incoming first years,” said Ruairí Power, the current welfare officer at UCD Students’ Union.

“While this is a very positive development, students need to receive comprehensive education about consent at a much earlier stage, we cannot continue to firefight this issue at third level and not seek to resolve it at an earlier stage,” he said in a press statement.

“Students need to receive comprehensive education about consent at a much earlier stage, we cannot continue to firefight this issue at third level and not seek to resolve it at an earlier stage.”

So how does DCU compare when it comes to attitudes around sexual harassment and consent?

Well, a display for the “It Stops Now,” campaign featuring different types of underwear around the U was destroyed back in February, but this was seemingly an isolated incident caused by non-DCU students.

“It’s quite hard to say for certain how we measure up to other universities,” O’Reilly told The College View.

“I can say that we trained the most first years of any higher education institution in Active* Consent this year- over 2000 students engaged in our online virtual training during orientation.”

“The thing to remember is, sex without consent is rape. Consent has to be mutual, freely given, and ongoing. If you have been a victim of rape, I believe you. The sabbatical team believes you, and we will do everything you wish for us to do to help you through,” said O’Reilly.

The Active* Consent Training programme and toolkit was devised by NUI Galway based on the findings of the USI Sexual Experience Survey. It’s currently being rolled out in most Irish universities as part of first-year orientation. 

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has warned universities that don’t make efforts to implement the toolkit and tackle sexual harassment could be facing cuts in funding.

This zero-tolerance approach is all part of the National Framework for Consent’s vision to “foster a campus culture that is clear in the condemnation of unwanted and unacceptable behaviours.”

One can only hope with enough education and training we can make Irish campuses a safer, more respectful environment for us all.

Kasey Leigh McCrudden

Image credit: Alison Clair