Friday 19 April 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Why universities cannot become detective, judge and jury over sexual violence claims'

Protest: Student Brianne Hunstman encourages Stanford University graduates in California to wear a 1/3 sign on their caps. Statistics claimed one in three students experience a sexual assault by the time they graduate. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty
Protest: Student Brianne Hunstman encourages Stanford University graduates in California to wear a 1/3 sign on their caps. Statistics claimed one in three students experience a sexual assault by the time they graduate. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

How and when did sexual assault become so prevalent on our third-level campuses? And how can the Government and institutions of higher education address sexual assault, support victims and not unfairly punish innocent students?

Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor has commissioned an expert report on how to tackle sexual harassment and violence at third level and it suggests colleges take a larger role in recording and reporting incidents. A draft of the report proposes third-level colleges should be obliged to record and report incidents of sexual harassment, assault and rape on campuses, rather than leaving these issues to gardaí.

It also says there should be "transparent and accountable" protocols for dealing with staff or students who have been the subject of complaints. Colleges will be judged on their progress in implementing these changes on an annual basis by education authorities, a step which could lead to funding being withheld if enough progress hasn't been made.

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I'm not sure we should be involving colleges in recording and reporting incidents of sexual violence. It sounds worryingly like the US approach. Arbitrating rape isn't the job of college administrators. We should leave that to the gardaí.

There is limited research available on the experience of gender-based violence in third-level colleges in Ireland. It's a crime usually committed in private and the victims of which, all the studies agree, often don't report.

The 'Say Something' study in 2013 reported 11pc of female students had experienced unwanted sexual contact, 5pc were rape survivors and a further 3pc were survivors of attempted rape.

Some 31pc of women reported feeling harassed, and 17pc had been photographed or filmed without consent. The 2015 National Sexual Assault Trauma Unit Activity Report recorded that of 685 people who attended rape or sexual assault units, 92pc of patients were women and 45pc identified themselves as students.

At many US colleges, the rules intended to protect victims of sexual assault mean that an accusation of wrongdoing can derail someone's entire college education.

These rules proliferated during President Barack Obama's administration, as did threats of sanctions if third-level institutions didn't follow them precisely. The motivation was good but it all ended in a very messy system with lots of unintended consequences.

There have been several high-profile cases of American students losing their place or facing harsh disciplinary proceedings over allegations that were later shown to be completely unsubstantiated. We shouldn't go down that path.

Consent classes are a part of the solution but they won't stop people from raping. Most people know not to rape, just as we know not to murder or steal. Sexual consent classes at UCD were cancelled due to lack of interest in 2017. Only 20 students attended well-publicised classes run by the students' union.

There's not much international evidence classes work - students' approach to sex and consent is already set by the time they start college. There's also the danger consent classes treat all young men as potential rapists.

Recently, a story emerged from UCD about an email reportedly sent by a fourth-year medical student to the computer science department about developing a phone app called 'Consent' that would "allow for others to quickly verify their consent prior to sexual activities" and stop "life-destroying legal ramifications". There was serious backlash from students but it raises questions about the concerns that exist for young men.

We need to look at our hook-up culture a bit more critically. I'm not calling for a return to the days when boarding houses forbade young women from entertaining men in their rooms. But are all sexual experiences in college really empowering? And what if college hook-up culture is more dangerous, in its own ways, than we like to admit to ourselves?

Our culture of hooking up peddles the worrying notion that apathy towards your sexual partner is normal, even ideal. And this is a paradox when consent classes teach us that we all have a basic duty of care towards our sexual partners.

Despite our efforts to curtail sexual violence on college campuses, we are also ignoring a very important factor: alcohol. The report 'Are Consent Workshops Sustainable and Feasible in Third-Level Institutions?' includes surveys with more than 3,500 students conducted at NUI Galway consent workshops. In one, 733 students read one of two versions of a story where both characters were drinking.

Only one in five students considered the female character too drunk to give consent in the story where she consumed a whopping 14 standard drinks, while just 33pc considered the character too drunk in the version where she drank 28 standard drinks. Conversations around hook-ups and drinking demand great care, but they are conversations worth having.

Sexual crimes are devastating, and victims don't always get justice when they come forward. But we must never reach a point where Irish universities investigate, judge and punish the kind of ambiguous sexual encounters that trained law-enforcement officials are unable to sort out.

The US model has only created chaos on campuses.

Irish Independent

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