Sunday Longread: The female student experience

Abby Cleaver discusses the routine challenges faced by many women in light of the murder of Ashling Murphy

This article contains discussion of sexual violence 

The female student experience can be broken down into sets of protective routines influenced by safety rules imposed by society that we have been taught or learned as women. Personal ritual practices are put in place by each of us to make travelling from A to B safer, to have fun but not enough fun to be vulnerable, with the end-goal being to avoid as much unwanted male attention as possible. Many of these habits have been shaped by experiences over the years, and with college life presenting new and different scenes and situations to operate within, we have been forced to adapt our precautionary measures further still.

Ashling Murphy’s death devastated the country. Everyone felt the pain and shock of her death. The outrage has restarted the conversation about violence against women in Ireland, with everyone sharing the now-familiar trending tagline “she was going for a run”. While it is undeniable that no matter what a woman is doing she should be safe from attack, the particular circumstances of Ashling’s death seemed to reach the young women of Ireland on a deeper level, proving true the fear that we all suppress: no matter what we do we are not safe. These safety routines we live in, the safety precautions we take, are never a guarantee of getting home safely. The young women of Ireland looked at this case and thought of which pictures of themselves would be used on the front-page story of their own attack.

“We keep our heads down, earphones in, trying our best not to engage or escalate a situation we never asked to be a part of.”

Going to college in the city comes with accepting that public transport is close to unavoidable, with the majority of students having to commute some distance to reach the centre. Usually, the journey to college is one that students take alone, and for female students this comes with worries that their male counterparts need not consider. We each have stories of feeling uncomfortable on public transport and have heard an immeasurable number of stories from our friends as well. We can recall tales of being catcalled walking down the street, groups of men rating women as they step onto the LUAS, and strangers’ eyes on your bare legs as you regret your choice to wear a short skirt. We keep our heads down, earphones in, trying our best not to engage or escalate a situation we never asked to be a part of. Not only do these instances come with these sorts of preventative habits, but lead to feelings of frustration and anger knowing we should not have to ignore this sort of behavior, and yet we do. This frequently happens early in the day, on our daily route to college, where we should be allowed to feel safe.

Nights out for women serves as another and perhaps more obvious example for these learned routine habits. Jokes about women only being able to travel in groups are missing the point. Young women have fun while keeping a watchful eye on their drinks and politely telling the same guys again and again that they are not interested. Before going out most of us are already planning our way home. With the Covid-19 restrictions being lifted once more these are just some of the many routine memories and annoyances swirling around our heads, but the past’s biggest threats to us are already different to before.

“The most frightening thing about this is that no matter how much you do “right”, no matter how safe you try to be or how much you plan, you can never truly let your guard down.”

Spiking was something we were all aware of and warned about as soon as we started going out as teenagers. It came with some clear rules: do not leave your drink down. Do not accept drinks from strangers. Do not drink anything you have not opened yourself. We have gotten used to these rules; we even learned different ways to tell if your drink has been spiked by the taste or smell or look of it. There is even nail polish you can buy that will change in colour if your drink has been tampered with. However, a sharp rise in students reporting spiking by injection was seen in the last year, with up to 46 such occurrences in 2021, though confirming the details of these incidents has proven difficult. Considering that there were restrictions for a lot of the year, these numbers are scarily high, resulting in yet another fear to add to the list on a fun night out. The most frightening thing about this is that no matter how much you do “right”, no matter how safe you try to be or how much you plan, you can never truly let your guard down.

One of the most frustrating things about being a young woman in college is that even when we do all of these things, follow all the safety precautions that come with being a woman, we still never feel like we’re actually safe. Because we probably aren’t. We face a daily conflict of wanting to stand up for ourselves, yet trying to stay undetected at the same time. Standing up for yourself is a great virtue, but it is a luxury unaffordable to young women in a lot of these situations. When you experience being one of many women being rated out of ten as you walk onto the LUAS, it is clear that your best option is to keep walking, head down, and avoid conflict. Trying to explain why what they are doing is wrong not only seems like a risk, but a pointless risk, as they know what they are doing is wrong and are doing it anyway. 

So instead we focus on our safety practices, we put our headphones on and avoid eye contact and cross the road when a group of loud men are walking towards us. Small tactics like this can be a comfort to some as we travel from A to B alone. For those who find them helpful, these safety habits can be as natural to do as breathing, and are used nearly as often, but they are rarely as easy. Every time we do one of these things is a reminder of why we do them, a lifetime of gradually learning of the different threats around us and implementing strategies to defend ourselves against them. We carry keys between our fingers as we walk alone in the dark, and though it gives us comfort, many of us would not be sure how well it would actually help if we had to defend ourselves.

Victim blaming is an important issue and one that needs to be mentioned. Does a woman deserve to be attacked if she has a few drinks, or stays out late? Does it matter what she was wearing? Absolutely not, but the terrifying thing is that deep down we all worry that no matter how much we do “right”, or how cautious we try to be, we are never able to fully relax. The paranoia that we try to push down when we make our way to college alone has roots from experience, or from stories of other girls that we have heard of.

The entire country grieves, and is outraged by Ashling Murphy’s murder, but the young women of Ireland face a deeper realisation still; the voices in the back of our heads whisper the horrifying truth of “it could have been you”.

Abby Cleaver

Abby Cleaver is the Comment Editor of Trinity News and currently studies an English Literature major with a minor in philosophy in her Junior Sophister year.