Comment & Analysis
Mar 20, 2017

Colleges Fighting a Sexual Assault Epidemic

Ellen Orchard explores where strategies to prevent sexual harassment in college currently stand, examining the effectiveness of both preventative and post-assault strategies.

Ellen OrchardDeputy Opinion Editor

The prevalence of sexual harassment in universities in the UK is now at an “epidemic” level, according to a new investigation by the Guardian. The figures that have emerged in Ireland suggest that it’s an issue we can’t ignore here either. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), entitled “Say Something”, it was reported that 16 per cent of female students experienced an “unwanted sexual experience”, with four per cent of men responding similarly. Of all these cases, less than half discussed the issue with someone else, and only three per cent were reported to the police. Last year, Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, revealed that half of Irish women would be sexually assaulted at some stage in their life. These and many other statistics point to the same truth: sexual harassment, particularly (but not exclusively) of women, is at a shockingly high level. Addressing sexual harassment in college is complex, as it involves both accepting that it is inevitable, while also attempting to prevent it altogether. It would be naive to think that the preventative measures adopted by universities are to replace the services designed for helping people post-assault. A university with excellent policies on sexual harassment should incorporate a balance of both.

The main tactic in preventing instances of sexual assault lies primarily in education regarding issues of consent. Indeed, this year’s International Women’s Day saw the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre highlight their consent campaign. Consent and agreement in sex, although perhaps seemingly rudimental, is crucial in our tackling of sexual assault. Last year, for example, Trinity became the first Irish university to implement consent workshops for its first-year students. These workshops, running in Trinity Hall, saw an attendance of 400 students. Students were strongly encouraged by members of the JCR and staff to attend and learn about defining consent from trained facilitators. The success of these workshops lead to their extension to students beyond first year, outside of Trinity Hall, as well as encouraging University College Dublin (UCD) to also implement them. However, this year saw the cancellation of UCD’s consent workshops due to lack of interest, seeing only 20 participants in attendance out of a student population of over 30,000. This reflects a central issue in regards to sexual harassment at a university level – those who are keen in discussing consent and creating teaching methods based on agreement are likely those who require teaching the least.

This hesitancy in reporting assaults is only aggravated by the ambiguous procedures that meet anyone who reports an instance of sexual assault

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In an Irish Times article following the cancellation of UCD’s consent classes, the union’s Welfare Officer, Róisín O’Mara, said, “those who did think there was a need for the classes, generally didn’t feel they needed to go”. This is in a similar vein to the reporting process of universities. There is no rigid reporting structure in place for all universities, which means many get away with not reporting figures of assault. One consequence of this is that universities that report the highest levels of sexual harassment are probably the ones with the best implementation of preventative measures in place. A more cohesive reporting system implemented in all Irish universities would perhaps eradicate this frustrating disparity, just as making consent workshops mandatory, or strongly encouraged, is sadly, the only way that they will see a large turnout.

Changing the reporting process in universities for victims of sexual harassment must begin with a change in mentality towards the victim. That is, we must begin to decriminalise the victim, to attempt to eradicate victim blaming. The fear of reporting an instance of sexual harassment is a large factor in many people’s decision not to. A person reporting their sexual assault is in an extremely vulnerable position. Victims are often embarrassed, worried that they will be blamed for what happened, often made to feel like a nuisance and worried that they will jeopardise their reputation, both professionally and academically. They also fear that their claims will be de-legitimised.

This hesitancy in reporting assaults is only aggravated by the ambiguous procedures that meet anyone who reports an instance of sexual assault. For example, following two high-profile assault cases in December 2016, it was revealed that the procedure in place for dealing with assault, although listed on the TCDSU website, is not widely circulated, and many remain uncertain about the reporting protocol following an attack. As long as policy surrounding reporting sexual harassment remains so ambiguous, the incentive to report instances of sexual assault will remain weak. A community where victims of sexual assault do not feel inclined to speak makes it difficult for them to recover from the experience. Educating people on sexual harassment involves educating them on the tacit of victim blaming that is rife in much discussion on the subject. In a 2015 launch for the TCDSU sexual consent survey, Senator Lynn Ruane, who was at the time of the launch the TCDSU Student Parents Officer, stressed the need to educate students of victim blaming: “It’s not your fault if something happens, but you have to be able to protect yourself.”

If last week’s demonstrations on International Women’s Day showed us anything, it is that a large number of people are unhappy about the way this country treats women

USI attempted to solve this problem this year by learning how to handle cases of sexual assault after they have occurred. This year saw the launch of the “Say Something” card by USI, following their survey on sexual misconduct. These cards are designed to provide students with information they need following a sexual assault: people to report to and places of support. Education, it would appear, is crucial to issues of consent.

There is still stigma around dealing with instances of sexual assault within a university, as it often involves admitting that a problem lies within its own grounds. Yet, until the epidemic rate of sexual assault is accepted, and truly accepted, in a university setting, there is no chance of improvement. The high rates of sexual assault in university do not correlate with it being a space of learning, progressive thinking and open discussion. Work needs to be done on both the preventative and the post-incident approach to cases of sexual harassment in college. While consent classes are certainly a step in the right direction, it is not enough. They must continue to be encouraged, and furthermore, a mindset change in both university and government administration is necessary in improving the epidemic rates of sexual assault in Irish universities. If last week’s demonstrations on International Women’s Day showed us anything, it is that a large number of people are unhappy about the way this country treats women. What it also illuminates is Ireland’s capacity for change – tackling the issue of sexual harassment is about changing mindsets and complex university systems, both in regards to preventative and post-assault strategies.

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