Thursday 8 December 2016

'I would just feel uneasy alone on campus at night'

Rachel O'Neill isn't the only UCD student angry and afraid after it was revealed that 200 males at the ­university are sharing explicit ­pictures of college girls online. Now ­authorities are promising to tackle the scandal. But will ­anything be done?

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Question of consent: Student Union Graduate Officer Hazel Beattie at the UCD Students' Union launch last November of the year-long 'Not Asking For It' campaign to promote the conversation about sexual consent. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Question of consent: Student Union Graduate Officer Hazel Beattie at the UCD Students' Union launch last November of the year-long 'Not Asking For It' campaign to promote the conversation about sexual consent. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Feeling uneasy: Rachel O'Neill

It's one of Europe's most prestigious campuses with more than 30,000 students from throughout Ireland and beyond. Strolling through Belfield after dark, however, neuroscience student Rachel O'Neill confessed that she doesn't feel safe.

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Less than a year after it emerged that some male students had been ranking their female classmates by looks online, UCD was back in the spotlight this week amid reports of an alleged revenge-porn ring on campus.

"With what happened last year and with this, there's definitely an uneasiness on campus," the third-year student from Kildare says. "I would feel uneasy on campus on my own. I don't like being there on my own at night."

Last Wednesday, The College Tribune published an explosive article on how up to 200 male students at the Dublin university could be embroiled in a private Facebook group "in which members share and rate stories and pictures of girls they have slept with".

Responding to accusations of a "toxic lad culture" at the 162-year-old college, bosses vowed to investigate the supposed Facebook group as "a matter of urgency" and appealed to students with any information to "come forward in confidence".

The statement continued: "Breaches of the student code may result in sanctions up to and including expulsion from the university."

As the #UCD200 went viral in recent days however, young women at the college revealed they weren't reassured.

"I wasn't exactly surprised by the story," says Fiona Caverly from Blanchardstown, who's in her final year studying statistics. "It's the kind of thing I've come to expect.

"What surprised me was the size of the group - the fact that around 200 lads supposedly knew that this was going on and didn't see anything wrong with it.

"I don't feel like much is being done to tackle this at all really," she continued. "There's a consent campaign being run, but the people who engage in it don't seem to be the people who need it."

Last month, Trinity College Dublin Students' Union controversially called for sexual consent classes to become mandatory for all first-year students from September. In the wake of this scandal at its School of Agriculture and Food Science, now UCD Students' Union (UCDSU) - which is already hosting a year-long #NotAskingForIt campaign including voluntary consent classes - has vowed to follow suit.

Blasting the sharing of explicit photos online as "sexual violence", it promised: "We're not going to pass the buck. We will change 'lad' culture in UCD as promised following our election to office."

Elsewhere at NUI Galway this week, two separate male and female 'Smart Consent' workshops, which took place as part of SHAG [Sexual Health And Guidance] Week 2016, were reportedly packed to capacity, but didn't expressly address revenge porn. "I attended the male workshop myself when they were piloted last year," explains Phelim Kelly, who's president of the Galway university's students' union. "[Initially] there were mixed workshops, but then a lot of people felt that it would be better to segregate both genders out.

"Basically it explores the whole concept of consent and gets you to think of scenarios where you ask, 'Do you want to go further?' It really just gives the black and white [definition of consent], as in, 'Yes' is you're good to go, but the absence of a 'No' doesn't necessarily mean you're good to go.

"While the workshop I attended did not specifically relate to sexting or revenge porn, by the very nature of the workshop itself, it is implied that these kind of things are not OK," he continues. "Although I can safely say that [what allegedly happened at UCD] hasn't happened here, I would be lying to say that there isn't a lad culture.

"But I think it's more of a societal thing. Lad culture is everywhere - not just on campus."

Back at UCD, a separate Facebook group entitled 'Girls I'd shift if I was tipsy' - which counted current UCDSU president Marcus O'Halloran among its members - previously came to light last March.

Open to the public, the "lads only group", which urged users to "talk freely" about the young women on campus and has since been either deleted or made private, was also made up of agricultural science students.

Over a week after the article first sent shockwaves throughout the canteen, Rachel - who commutes to college from Straffan - says female students and their male friends, oft tarred with the same brush, are still fuming.

"When I first saw it I was quite angry because this kind of thing has happened before," says the 21-year-old. "People are really, really unhappy with what's happened, especially the girls on campus.

"There's a general consensus that the SU hasn't done enough, or learned their lessons from last year. It's always hidden behind the words 'it's just a bit of banter' and I think people are just fed up of it at this stage.

"We don't want to assume guilt before innocence, obviously, but we feel like maybe there must be something substantial behind this - I don't think the paper would have printed it otherwise."

Speaking to Review, College Tribune political editor Jack Power, who wrote the article, described how his source - a female student who wished to remain anonymous - had shown him screen grabs of men confessing to being in the group on messaging app Yik Yak, but added that he had been unable to gain access to the original Facebook thread.

"Essentially how it came out was with a few people chatting on Yik Yak," he says. "My source had a few screenshots of one or two of the lads claiming to be in the group. Then other people were coming forward saying they'd heard of it as well. My understanding is it's not a closed page, it's a Messenger chat group, so you can't search for it on Facebook - one of your Facebook friends has to add you in to the chat.

"Obviously I had my own concerns that I didn't have access to this," adds the third-year student of history and politics. "I couldn't say, 'Here are the people involved, here's what they're doing'.

"I certainly felt I had enough to bring what I had forward and say, 'There's a lot of serious allegations that this chat may very well be in existence', and that definitely has to be looked into really seriously. So that's the line we went with, anyway."

Banned in the UK since last April, there have been repeated calls for the criminalisation of revenge porn in Ireland too. Currently, only existing harassment or privacy laws can be invoked in a bid to have the offending material taken down.

However, a spokesperson for the Garda Press Office confirmed it had not received any official complaints in relation to the UCD case.

Warning against "equating consent campaigns with lad culture", Union of Students in Ireland (USI) President Kevin O'Donoghue maintained the new classes are "not just for men", and argued for the inclusion of cybercrime issues such as revenge porn.

"We don't know necessarily what happened in UCD," he says, "but we haven't seen anything like that anywhere else - not on that scale.

"If it's true, obviously you'd be concerned about that kind of behaviour. When we do things like consent classes, I think that kind of stuff needs to be factored into it as well.

"It's absolutely, under no circumstances, acceptable to share explicit images of anybody without their consent - and how we've managed to enter into a situation where people feel they can do that only highlights the need for consent classes."

After being groped in a well-known Dublin nightclub on an official college night out, third-year neuroscience student Emma Murphy recalled how she withdrew from campus life: "For me, escaping the toxic lad culture essentially meant isolating myself from most of the people in my course because I didn't want to go to a nightclub to be physically or verbally harassed.

"It's not something that's only in UCD, lad culture is prevalent throughout society - groups of men thinking it's 'a bit of banter' to degrade and sexualise women. But it's never just banter for the victims who are left feeling humiliated.

"The only way to set a better example for the future is to publicly name and shame the members of this group, and expel each and every one of them, instead of excusing their behaviour."

First in line for voluntary consent classes at UCD, Rachel O'Neill believes they should become mixed and mandatory for all third-level students:

"Some of the guys in college have been posting stuff about how they feel like it's moronic that they might have to attend these mandatory classes. There's such a gender divide on the reaction to it.

"Consent issues happen to everybody. I think you need to have classes with men and women so you can get both perspectives. If you make them single sex, it defeats the whole purpose."

Responding to the backlash, the USI's Kevin O'Donoghue concluded: "People get themselves into hysterics. At the end of the day, I would rather take the risk of offending you by suggesting you should learn something, putting you in a situation where you need to know what consent is - than don't."

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