The topic of consent has been brought to the fore in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Me Too movement which sparked discussions about the prevalence of sexual misconduct in all echelons of society. College campuses are in no ways exempt from a culture of misogyny, sexual assault, or victim blaming. While a broad cultural shift is needed to take on such ingrained societal attitudes, the least universities can do with regards to sexual assault is to have a robust policy in place that enables victims to report assault in a way in which they feel comfortable, and can be assured that due process will be guaranteed.
“While student movements and representatives have taken positive steps with regards to creating a culture of consent on campus, College itself often lags behind.”
While student movements and representatives have taken positive steps with regards to creating a culture of consent on campus, College itself often lags behind. In March 2019, TCDSU voted to bring in an intern to handle education around sexual consent. The union overall makes an effort to hold campaigns and workshops around the issue of consent; during every SU election season, the topic of consent workshops and Ask for Angela schemes for nights out are brought up time and time again. College’s current consent intern, Aoife Grimes, was employed by College to research a new Sexual Misconduct Policy, and work on a Bystander Intervention Programme, as reported by Trinity News last October. However, within College itself, the procedure for reporting sexual assault or misconduct is far from perfect. Sexual misconduct is an extremely sensitive issue, and those who handle allegations should be trained to deal appropriately with the matter. However, the only online information readily available for reporting sexual assault are the following words on the SU website: “To make an official report against another member of the TCD college community you will need to log it with the Junior Dean. If you need information or advice on this process you can contact your tutor, the SU Welfare Officer, or the GSU Vice President.” As it stands, the Dignity and Respect Procedures encompass sexual harassment, rather than having a separate set of procedures and guidelines, something College has acknowledged is inappropriate. If College is to release their Sexual Misconduct Policy, given the long wait for it to materialise, it is vital that it hits the mark.
A USI survey released in June of last year revealed that nearly a third of female students had experienced non-consensual penetration, and 70% of victims claimed they didn’t understand college procedure relating to assault. This makes it all the more clear that promoting a culture of consent must rapidly jump up the list of College’s priorities. High-profile sexual assault cases cases relating to members of the Trinity community further emphasise the need for College to take swift action. Brendan Leahy, Trinity’s Head of Facilities and Services, received a suspended sentence for sexually assaulting a woman in Dublin city centre in 2018, which was reported in March 2021. While College is currently investigating Leahy while he is “off duty” as confirmed by a spokesperson, how the matter is handled will without question set a precedent for how College deals with all issues surrounding sexual misconduct from now onwards.
“A research lead approach is of course important, but so are the decisive steps colleges take based on the data at hand.”
While an online tool for anonymously reporting sexual assault at third-level was recently developed by the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland (PCHEI), the silence from colleges themselves has not gone unnoticed. A research lead approach is of course important, but so are the decisive steps colleges take based on the data at hand. While the incoming Sexual Misconduct Policy is a welcome step, it is also worth asking why it took so long in the first place. While many (Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris included) have paid lip service to the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses, the real indication of whether or not students can trust their education institutes to protect them, is to be found in action, not words. It is not enough to rely on the SU providing consent workshops during Freshers’ week; College must act to roll out a transparent procedure for reporting and handling sexual assault and misconduct on campus.