A report on sexual consent among third level students released today finds that 70% of women have experienced sexual hostility or crude gender harassment by their third year of college, while over half of third year women students reported having been treated differently because of their sex at some point in their college experience.
The report, “Are Consent Workshops Sustainable and Feasible in Third Level Institutions?”, surveyed over 3,500 students at consent workshops around the country. The National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) SMART Consent initiative led the research team.
Introducing the report, Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, explained that the research shows young people are “exposed to unacceptable sexual harassment and unwanted sexual activity”.
The report found that over half (54%) of women in their first year of college reported experiencing sexual hostility or crude gender harassment since starting college, while a quarter of first year men reported the same. This rises to 64% among second year women students and 37% among second year men students and further rises to 70% and 40% respectively thereafter.
Mitchell O’Connor stated: “As Minister, it falls to me to ensure that providing excellence in education depends also on providing a safe learning environment, free from sexual harassment, assault and the fear or threat of it.”
“All institutions have a duty of care to their students and I am delighted to see many of them integrate and support these empowerment and preventative initiatives, such as mandatory consent workshops,” Mitchell O’Connor continued.
Investigating perceptions of alcohol and capacity to give consent among third level students, the research team asked 753 students to read one of two versions of a consent story in which both characters were drinking. The report notes that the responses prompt an “urgent” need to “achieve enhanced awareness among young adults in college of the impact of drinking on the capacity to give consent”.
In a story where the female character, Carol, had 14 standard drinks throughout an evening, 80% of people felt she was sober enough to be able to consent to sexual acts. Reading another version where Carol drank 28 standard drinks, 70% of respondents still did not agree with the idea she was too drunk to consent, according to the report.
Speaking to Trinity News, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President Shane De Rís outlined that the report “strengthens the case that students need to be educated [in sexual consent] as early as possible. TCDSU has been leading the way through our consent workshops which have been a tremendous success, with over 90% attendance last year, but there is much more to be done”.
Consent workshops at Trinity Halls over the last two years have seen high turnouts, with College approving a €15,000 expansion of consent classes earlier this year. The expansion is set to bring consent workshops offered to societies and sports clubs on campus.
“The recognition by the Government and the Minister of the problem through this report must be followed with action, and can’t be let fall off the radar. Young people need education in all matters relating to sex, sexuality, and consent,” De Rís continued.
At primary and second level, the National Council on Curriculum and Assessment is currently reviewing the relationships and sexuality curriculum. “Formal school experiences do not currently prepare most young people well for managing the sexual decision-making scenarios likely to arise during their time at college,” said Mitchell O’Connor.
The report found among third level students, 71% of women and 63% of men were dissatisfied with the sexual health education they received at school. Furthermore, 75% of LGBT+ students felt that sexual health education at school did not cover the topics of most interest to them, compared to 66% of heterosexual students.
Speaking on the findings, leader of the SMART Consent initiative, Dr Pádraig MacNeela, stated: “The survey findings show that the social environment in which consent takes place among college students is often unsupportive – most women experience harassment, a large majority of all students are dissatisfied with their sexual health education at school, and social norms for drinking minimise the true impact of alcohol on the capacity to give consent.”
The National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) SMART Consent research team, which led the report, also trained Trinity staff and students in 2016 in how to facilitate consent workshops.