Earlier this week, Simon Harris – quite rightly – referred to the prevalence of sexual violence on third-level campuses as an “epidemic”, and announced a number of initiatives to tackle the issue.
Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Welfare Officer Leah Keogh and the National Women’s Council of Ireland praised Harris on the initiatives he announced, as well as his desire to deal with these issues so early in his tenure as Minister for Higher Education, clearly marking out this area as a priority for the new department.
However, upon further examination, the initiatives rolled out by Harris seem barely a footstep in the long road towards ensuring that rape is no longer a part of the college experience for many students. For example, Harris has commissioned yet another survey into sexual violence on campuses. If surveys could solve sexual violence, then there wouldn’t be any work left to do.
Year after year, another survey comes out with harrowing findings: in 2018, NUI Galway conducted research that revealed 70 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men have experienced sexual harassment in college. Another survey conducted by NUI Galway and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) earlier this year showed that three in 10 female students have experienced non-consensual penetration during their time in college.
These surveys are obviously useful in providing cold, hard data on the extent of sexual violence at third level. They help to bridge the gap between what happens to students and what ends up being reported. But there are only so many surveys that can be commissioned in the name of data collection before it looks like the department is beating around the bush.
Actions such as commissioning surveys allow the government to hide behind sombre shakes of the head and words about how terrible sexual violence is – without ever saying how they will take steps to stop students being raped, or invest in supports to help survivors in the aftermath of when these crimes occur.
Rape and sexual assault on campuses is indisputably a problem. We don’t need more surveys to prove it.