Comment & Analysis
Aug 20, 2017

Consent Conversations Must Respond to Students Who Barely Recognise Sexual Assault

A Queen’s survey found that many students failed to label a non-consensual experience as sexual assault. Conversations around consent must reflect this.

Léigh as Gaeilge an t-Eagarfhocal (Read Editorial in Irish) »
By The Editorial Board

A survey on sexual assault was a long time coming in Northern Ireland. With national conversation erupting in the last few years around consent, Queen’s have followed in the footsteps of USI and Trinity respectively, in conducting their own survey to glean insight into the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.

The Queen’s survey is unexpectedly pioneering in more ways than one. Not only does it put a number on students’ non-consensual experiences, it also provides revealing insights into how students perceive and respond to these incidents.

One of the most alarming findings was that very few respondents who had had a non-consensual sexual encounter defined their experience as sexual assault. Even though their experiences met the definition for sexual assault, that is, any unwanted sexual contact, many people were either unaware or unwilling to classify it as such. By splitting incidences into unwanted kissing, unwanted sexual touching and penetrative assault, the Queen’s survey gives a full, detailed picture of sexual assault in Ireland.


The low incidence of reporting among victims is not news to anyone. However, the reasons for not reporting to either the university or the police are harrowing, with “not serious enough”, “not sure if a crime” and “ashamed or embarrassed” topping the list. Furthermore, while the survey may have been undertaken in Northern Ireland, the distressing results, which reveal the gravity of the situation, cannot be drastically different to experiences here in colleges across the country.

As the conversation around consent unfolds across Ireland, spurred on by the implementation of consent classes by several colleges, it is disconcerting that we are still seeing such a disparity in what students label “sexual assault”. The definition is a straightforward one and yet, confusion still exists. Such confusion will only ever discourage victims from stepping forward for fear of being seen to exaggerate or sensationalise their experiences.

The findings of the Queen’s survey clearly demonstrate that there is a lack of awareness among students as to what constitutes sexual assault. The challenge now for student leaders is to find innovative ways to educate and inform societal attitudes so that the perpetrators of sexual assault do not go unchallenged.