Editorial: The Department’s reporting of its survey on sexual violence was irresponsible

Declaring “most students feel safe” when nearly a third of female students experienced rape was irresponsible, and unfair to those who participated in the survey

This article contains discussion of sexual harassment, violence and rape. 

Earlier this week, the Department of Higher and Further Education published the findings of their survey on sexual violence and harassment in third level education. This report contained some highly troubling statistics on student and staff experiences, with more than one third of female students reporting experiencing rape.

Just under 8,000 students and 3,500 staff participated in the survey, with the department eager to put at the top of its press release that “a majority” said they feel safe on campus, including in campus accommodation. The department also prominently noted that a “majority” said that they would feel supported if they came forward with accounts of sexual harassment and thought it unlikely that their Higher Education Institution (HEI) would respond negatively.

But huge numbers of respondents reported experiencing various kinds of hostility, harassment or violence, with a majority of students saying they had experienced sexism and sexist hostility, and a majority of students also reporting sexual harassment, such as repeatedly being told offensive sexual stories or jokes.

Worst of all though, 14% of student participants said someone had oral sex with them while they were incapacitated and unable to give consent, and 7% said they had been physically forced into oral sex; both of these experiences are, of course, rape. Furthermore, 34.2% of female students had experienced vaginal rape through coercion, incapacitation, force, or threat of force.

Despite these stark, and frankly horrific, statistics, the department decided to lead with the fact that “most students feel safe”, and Minister Simon Harris began his statement by welcoming the “positive developments” indicated by some survey results. The academic leading the analysis of the report, Dr Pádraig MacNeela, took much the same line.

It is nonsensical, and actually quite irresponsible of the department and the minister to state this. It does not matter that a majority of students may have ticked the box that said they feel safe on campus, when a third of young women have experienced rape. Most people feeling safe while a large majority experience horrible violence is not a win. None of us can be safe until all of us are. This rhetoric by the department was irresponsible.

Reading past the department’s summary and into the detailed findings of the report, it’s also clear that this statistic doesn’t even tell the whole story of that specific issue; students’ accounts of how safe they feel on campus are highly gendered. For example, 79% of male students reported feeling safe socialising at night on campus, compared to just 22% of female students. Barely half of female students said they even felt safe during the day, at just 51%. To flatten those results out and just say “most students feel safe” is downright unscrupulous. This is a primarily (though not exclusively) gendered problem, as illustrated by the rates of female students who experienced sexual violence, and it is wrong to gloss over that.

Feelings of safety were less common among LGBT+ students too. Non-binary students reported feeling secure at even lower levels than female students, and gay and bisexual students felt safe at rates nine and 13 points lower than straight students respectively. 45% of non-binary students had been sexually harassed on the basis of their gender identity and 68% on the basis of their sexuality. Non-binary respondents also reported having been subjected to sexual violence at rates similar to or above women, something also largely missed in reporting on this issue.

Again, this problem does not affect all groups of people equally, and the department was knowingly papering over that when it generalised.

As an aside, while it is of course good that the report assessed the experiences of non-binary students separately from male and female students, the survey’s failure to assess the experiences of trans people as a whole was a glaring omission. Other studies have found numerous times that trans people suffer sexual harassment and violence at much higher rates than cis people, so the survey’s failure to fully examine this issue in Irish higher education is concerning.

The report of the survey’s results also used the phrasing “non-consensual vaginal penetration through coercion, incapacitation, force, or threat of force”. There is no such thing as “non-consensual vaginal penetration”. The word is rape. It is one thing to use more detailed terminology within the questionnaire, perhaps to determine the precise kind of rape students experienced, but when releasing those results those results, the department should call a spade a spade. The word “rape” did not appear once in the press release.

Not using the correct terminology in media releases was clearly intentional, and it adds to the omnipresent culture of downplaying the severity and prevalence of sexual violence and harassment in our society. It is not a virtue to discuss this issue in the most dehumanised, clinical way possible. There is no such thing as “non-consensual sex”; this phrasing was not correct, and should not have been used in a government publication. The respondents to those questions experienced rape, and the deparment should have said that.

It is the opinion of this newspaper that it was irresponsible for the department to frame the issue in the way that it did, and to thereby downplay the reality of sexual violence, harassment and rape on our campuses. As media outlets, we also have a responsibility to report these findings based on what the figures have shown, and not how the department tried to frame these statistics. The initial version of our article on this issue, when posted online, didn’t do this well enough, so we amended it and changed the headline. We apologise for this oversight, and we’ll do better in future.

There is no reality in which one in three female students experience rape, and we are able to congratulate ourselves that “most students feel safe”. It’s not fair to those who disclosed their experiences within this survey, and it’s barely true when the answers vary so widely across demographics. As a society, as higher education institutions, and as journalists, we need to do better. That is the least that the students from this survey deserve, and the least survivors of sexual violence, harassment and rape deserve. We can’t even begin to solve the problem until we acknowledge the problem.