Why are so many Irish students not reporting sexual assaults?

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jul 03 2020 Posted: 10:24 IST

Author: Dr Charlotte McIvor, Dr Pádraig MacNeela and Lorraine Burke, Active Consent Programme

Opinion: the findings of a new survey shows the importance of the conversation around consent in Irish universities after Normal People

The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People has been the Irish, if not the global, television event of the pandemic. We are obsessed with Normal People, as Maria Tivnan pointed out, with its lengthy sex scenes as a key (but not the only) draw. 

A particularly positive outcome of our obsession with Normal People's steamy sequences are the mainstream conversations it has sparked around sexualconsent, specifically the necessity of ongoing active communication between partners. This communication is portrayed most memorably – and with refreshing ease and clarity – in the first sexual encounter between the popular, GAA-playing Connell (Paul Mescal) and the bookish, outspoken Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones).

This scene alone delivered a message that our Active* Consent programme team has been expressing for several years now: consent should be clear, ongoing, mutual, and freely-given. And it can be very sexy, just as sexy in fact, as Connell's infamouschain. The show itself modelled exemplary on-set practices regarding negotiation of consent between the performers, with intimacy coordinator, Ita O'Brien, working closelywith the series' directors and stars to choreograph the sex scenes.

Of course, as the series progresses, both Marianne and Connell encounter less idyllic consent scenarios. These include Marianne's violent groping by an acquaintance in a nightclub, Connell's experience of an aggressive sexual advance in public from his former schoolteacher and Marianne’s pursuit of violent BDSM-inflected sexual relationships that she consents to but does not visibly enjoy.

The most painful of these less-than-ideal scenarios to watch is perhaps when Connell refuses to hit Marianne during sex. a rejection she finds shaming. The clear communication that was delivered so casually in their first encounter is unfortunately lacking here. Had Marianne said how she felt being rejected by her partner, and if Connell had shared how he felt about being asked to do something he’s not comfortable with sexually, this might have led to a better outcome for communication within their relationship (instead of being glossed over in the series by him saving her after a violent encounter with her brother). 

But even as the initial hype of the series dies down, Normal People’s impact is unlikely to fade away anytime soon. We suggest that it would be good to capitalise on the conversations around sexual consent that it has sparked quite urgently here in Ireland. This conversation is particularly important for our third level institutions, where the series spends most of its time and where young people are most likely to explore sexual relationships.

Today the Active* Consent Programme and the Union of Students in Ireland released results from the first national survey on college students' sexual experiences in eight years, the Sexual Experiences Survey 2020: Sexual Violence and Harassment Experiences in a National Survey of Higher Education Institutions. It is also the first to include questions on race/ethnicity as well as gender, sexual orientation and ability. This provides an unprecedentedly intersectional view of sexual violence and harassment on Irish college campuses and a more diverse view of contemporary Ireland that the TV series also made relatively strong efforts to depict. 

But the news is far from as shiningly hopeful as Marianne and Connell's celebrated first encounter, with high incidences of both sexual violence and harassment reported across genders and sexual orientations attending Irish universities today.Of the 6,026 students who completed the survey, 29% of females, 10% of males, and 28% of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration through force, or threat of force, or while incapacitated and unable to give consent.

Many students disclose their experience to another person, with 51% of males, 65% of females, and 75% of non-binary students saying they had disclosed the incident to someone prior to taking part in the survey, most likely a peer. Unfortunately, 54% of females, 37% of males, and 33% of non-binary students who had not talked about it to anyone, said they did so because they thought it wasn't serious enough. 

We still have a lot of work to do to ensure that Irish young people who choose to take part in sexual intimacy have experiences that are positive and safe

Just over half of first year students reported experiencing sexual harassment in the form of sexual hostility since beginning college. This rose to 62% for second year students, and 66% for undergraduate students in third year or higher. Over half of students with a disability reported an experience of sexual misconduct by any tactic (56%), compared with 42% of other students.

In an era of marriage equality, reproductive rights and #MeToo, it might be easy to fall into complacency about being in an unprecedently open-minded, activist and sexually liberal Irish social moment. But these results indicate that we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that those Irish young people who do choose to take part in sexual intimacy have experiences that are positive and safe. And we do know what we need to do: talk about it to achieve a shared understanding of consent not only according toIrish law, but as it operates within our lived experiences. 

We also need the third level sector to fully implement the 2019 Consent in Higher Education Institutions Frameworkwhich details the policies, practices, and supports that colleges can engage in to achieve international prominence as leaders in the field. While Normal People gave us some particularly binge-worthy motivation to reignite a national dialogue around sexual consent, our data and this framework gives us the information that we need to act on within the higher-education sector.


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