The move from secondary school to university often serves as an emblem of liberation; college is a time for adolescents to meet new people, cook their own meals and explore their sexuality. Essentially, it is the first opportunity to live independently in a way they never could before. But growing up is as bitter as it is sweet, and along with this transition the joys of university come exposure to many harsh realities. One of the more prominent and likely the most perturbing reality of college life today is the problem of sexual violence on campuses.
Studies carried out by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) have revealed that female students between 18 and 24 are three times more likely than the average person to be victims of sexual violence. 13% of students, both males and females, experience rape or sexual assault. Sexual violence is a staggering concern amongst undergraduate students specifically. Statistics show that 26.4% of undergraduate female students and 6.8% of undergraduate males are victims of sexual assault.
One of the reasons for the high rate of sexual violence amongst university students is the collective ignorance surrounding what consent really entails. Too often we hear the phrase “Why couldn’t she just say no?”. While a study conducted in NUI Galway demonstrated that students will be attentive to a clear cut no, it also indicated that they wouldn’t pay as much attention to indirect comments or reluctant body language. This becomes a severe issue in social settings within a college environment. Where students may engage in sexual acts they don’t want to as a result of social pressure from new friends, or may not be able to properly consent under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The problem is not that people don’t know what consent is – we’ve all seen the video using tea as a metaphor for sex in secondary school – but that it is seen as superfluous.
For example, a student might feel pressured by an older student to engage in a sexual activity, fearing the consequences of saying no. Alcohol also plays a dominant role in the high rates of sexual violence in universities. Victims who experience sexual harm while intoxicated are often told that their memory has been impaired, and that they did consent. The presence of alcohol in tandem with sexual violence paves the way to a grey area in which the perpetrator can hide, while the victim is left to drown.
The consent workshops organized by universities, while intended well, are simply not enough. The problem is not that people don’t know what consent is – we’ve all seen the video using tea as a metaphor for sex in secondary school – but that it is seen as superfluous. NUIG’s study also revealed that 20% of Irish boys do not believe that consent is always necessary. The assumption that a victim can easily get out of their situation is dangerous amongst a young student population. As well as this, it is a far too convenient misconception for the perpetrator.
It needs to be amplified that just because sexual harm is nuanced, doesn’t mean a victim’s responses are invalid.
People differ in their responses to danger. A person who freezes up should not be shamed for it. Instead of teaching students about what they already know in consent workshops, focus should be placed on how people can respond differently to uncomfortable situations and that reluctant body language and a person’s discomfort should never be ignored during a sexual activity. Misunderstandings about responses to danger can lead to victim shaming and, worse again, victims blaming themselves. Students need to be taught about the effects of sexual assault on the mental health of victims. It needs to be amplified that just because sexual harm is nuanced, it doesn’t mean a victim’s responses are invalid.
Despite the high rates of sexual violence amongst college students, many cases of sexual harm go unreported. Victims don’t report their cases for a number of reasons: many victims are scared that they will be blamed, or their case wouldn’t be deemed important enough to report. Many victims also feel that reporting their case wouldn’t or couldn’t help, as the stark reality is that reported cases of sexual assault often go uninvestigated. In 2018/19, less than half of the sexual assault and harassment cases reported by students were investigated by universities. A stigma that sexual assault victims are “overreactive” is likely the reason why very few female student victims seek help after having been raped or sexually assaulted. Evidently, the majority of student victims feel as though they have no one to turn to.
Last year, nine Irish universities, including Trinity, paid €80,000 for an online system that allows students to anonymously report experiences of sexual assault. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, this system alone won’t suffice. There needs to be more support systems in place for sexual assault victims within universities. Students should be given more information about the counselling services available on campus when coming into University and be encouraged to seek support. It is the role of each university to provide support services that are accessible to everyone. If students were assured that help is there for them and that they won’t be judged for needing it, victims of sexual violence would be more likely to come forward and seek support.
Sexual harm is a staggering issue within universities, and instead of ignoring this reality, colleges must face this issue head on with compassion and empathy for their students.