Analysis: #UnmuteConsent, initiatives to combat sexual violence in College

#UnmuteConsent Campaign 2023 was recently launched. But what does it actually entail? And who benefits?

On 2 October 2023, higher education institutions across Ireland, including representative bodies like the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Irish Universities Association (IUA), and Union of Students in Ireland (USI), formally launched the #UnmuteConsent Campaign 2023. This launch aims to utilise the power of student mobilisation to reverse the trend of sexual harassment and violence, to create a truly respectful environment for everyone — on and off our campuses.”

The IUA denotes a culture of sexual violence and harassment throughout higher education institutions in Ireland, one that continues to be underreported. This reflects the campaign tagline, “‘YOU’RE ON MUTE’. When it comes to talking about consent, we are all on mute. It’s time to change that!”

Just days before the campaign was announced, the 2022 survey by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) was released. According to the report, four in ten adults report experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, although the actual number is likely much higher due to underreporting of these crimes. 

From the same report, almost one in five women experienced non-consensual sex, at a rate six times higher than men. 

The report continued where almost half of all 18-24 year olds surveyed disclosed they had experienced unwanted sexual advancements within the past year. 

It has become far too common to hear of students of any gender who are victims of sexual violence and harassment both on and off campus. Although violence of this nature is not exclusive to college communities, it is imperative to educate forthcoming generations in order to end the cycle of sexual violence. Raising awareness and promoting conversations of consent can shift the culture away from normalised unwanted sexual behaviours and instead towards a safer society for all. 

Understanding the prevalence and dangers of sexual violence, the #UnmuteConsent Campaign will encourage students to learn about consent (e.g. what it means, its limitations, and boundaries) in an effort to de-stigmatise conversations about sexual violence. The campaign aims to challenge the “perceived norms of unacceptable behaviour” and create an environment on higher education campuses where students who are victims of sexual violence feel empowered to report their experience. 

The campaign is active on various social media platforms: X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and Tiktok. In doing so, the message of #UnmuteConsent is able to speak directly to students on platforms that are familiar and engaging to the target audience. The X page has amassed over 1,000 followers and the Tiktok account has reached almost 3,500 followers and 150,000 likes. 

#UnmuteConsent is comprised of four main target areas in order to combat the sexual violence epidemic among college-age students. The campaign is structured to encourage students to speak out or report unacceptable behaviour, access support, challenge the norms of intolerable behaviour, talk about consent positively and confidently, and actively practise consent. 

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris TD stated: “Sexual harassment or sexual violence doesn’t start or end in third level education, but education is the greatest tool to dismantling this culture that has crept into our society.”

He continued: “There is a particular responsibility on those charged with educating the next generation in ensuring that students and learners are equipped to lead the change across society.”

 “The #UnmuteConsent campaign 2023 recognises the power of the student voice to drive change. Be the generation that stands up and speaks out, to create a respectful environment for everyone — on and off our campuses,” he ended. 

All higher education institutions are charged with implementing a set of measures to facilitate the rollout of #UnmuteConsent as well as to ensure support services are accessible to victims of sexual violence and harassment. 

The campaign was first launched in 2021, finding initial success in its initiatives. Since then, the 2022 campaign broadened its scope, reaching wider audiences and encouraging conversations about safe sex and consent across universities. This newly introduced 2023 campaign has already proved to be an even greater success as a result of increased publicity and awareness of the campaign. 

The #UnmuteConsent website provides resources to universities, educators, and students about available supports (national, on-campus, and cross-sectoral) and consent training to be implemented. 

Although the campaign is still in its early stages with this only being its third year, it has the potential to make great strides in minimising the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland. It is optimistic to view the campaign as the solution to the modern culture of “accepted” sexual violence; the reality is that the campaign is merely a step in the right direction. 

In raising our voices to fight against sexual violence continuously, the #UnmuteConsent Campaign has the potential to change the narrative regarding sexual violence in higher education institutions and university life.