Trinity report on sexual violence and its effects in Ireland is the first in the country in two decades

The research highlights the importance of the availability of mental health supports for survivors

A study published by Trinity alongside Maynooth University shows that one-third of all adults have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives. The study is based on a sample of 1,000 Irish adults, and the research was focused on the rates of sexual assault, as well as the mental difficulties survivors of sexual assault face. 

The study has been accepted for the publication of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, a journal which is devoted to the studies focused on addressing causes, effects, treatment, and prevention on all types of violence. This will be the first study on the effects and prevalence of sexual violence in the Republic of Ireland since the ‘Sexual Assault and Violence in Ireland’ (SAVI) report was published in 2002. 

The landmark SAVI report, now nearly two decades old, surveyed 3,000 people and found nearly 20% of women experienced sexual assault as adults, as did 10% of men. However, the recent study outlines substantial differences in rates of sexual violence between men and women, showing that 50% of women have experienced any form of sexual violence, compared to 19% of men. 

“Women were found to be significantly more likely than men to have experienced sexual violence.”

Dr Frédérique Vallières, Director of the Trinity Centre for Global Health, Trinity College and study co-lead said: “We noted substantial differences in the rates of sexual violence between men and women, whereby women were found to be significantly more likely than men to have experienced sexual violence.” While this can be seen from the report, the reason for the increased proportion of women who have survived sexual assault is not clear. 

Within the two decades that these studies have been published, many social changes have come across the Republic of Ireland. The new report writes that “Irish society has undergone substantial liberalisation and secularisation”, and this can be seen in the rise of the #MeToo movement, a hashtag that went viral in 2017 which allowed all women to publicly speak about their experiences with sexual harassment, and the Belfast Rape Trial, a highly publicised trial where many of the public came to support a survivor of sexual assault.

These high profile events have led to a change in attitude in young people. While an explanation for the differences in the statistics between the 2002 report and the 2020 one could be that more people are willing to report, a survey done by the Union of Students in Ireland shows that 44% of students in third-level education reported experiencing non-consensual behaviour, but less than 5% had disclosed their experience to the Garda Síochána. Many college students do not feel that it is safe to report; 74% of those who did report stated that they felt ashamed or embarrassed. 17% did not believe that the gardaí would do anything. 

To combat sexual violence in higher-level institutions, the Department of Education published  “Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions” in January 2020, which outlined key outcomes in preventing and reporting cases of sexual assault. This included having institutions record statistics on harassment, assault, and rape, as well as having an easy system for students to disclose and report incidents. Following its publication, nine Irish colleges including Trinity, NUI Galway, and Maynooth have signed up to an 80,000 online system which allows students to anonymously report incidents of assault. 

“The recent study also shows that those who have suffered sexual assault and violence were more likely to experience mental health problems in their lifetime.”

Whilst a means of reporting is necessary and beneficial, the recent study also shows that those who have suffered sexual assault and violence were more likely to experience mental health problems in their lifetime. The study’s co-lead author, Dr Philip Hyland, of the Department of Psychology at Maynooth University, states that the findings “show that people who had been raped or sexually harassed were more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems in adulthood including complex post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and generalised anxiety.” Additionally, the report shows that survivors of sexual violence were not experiencing greater disruption to their social functioning. 

Organisations like the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (RCC) offer services such as one-on-one counselling and web chat support. However, Noeline Blackwell, the CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says that the findings “clearly demonstrate the pernicious mental health effects of sexual violence and the need to increase access to mental health services for survivors of sexual violence”. 

Better counselling services and mental health resources are necessary to help combat the issue of sexual assault in Ireland. Supports such as Women’s Aid, Men’s Aid Ireland, and Dublin Rape Crisis Centre are available and free for those who need them, but more are needed to help survivors of sexual abuse, especially in college health services. Currently, Trinity does not provide counselling specifically for survivors of rape or sexual assault but does have Sexual Consent Workshops, which are run in August alongside orientation.

Research papers which outline both the rates and lasting impacts of sexual harassment and rape help professionals better understand the levels of these issues in Ireland, as well as find more efficient and better ways to help survivors of sexual assault. 

Blackwell says that “ensuring that available and accessible mental health services are integrated into sexual violence response programmes is central to achieving this [increasing mental health service usage by survivors]. The research finding that survivors have great resilience mirrors our similar experience of their strength.”

Nina Chen

Nina Chen is the Deputy Sci-Tech Editor for Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.