Majority of students experience sexual harassment

By Dan Buckley

Most students experience sexual harassment while at college, according to a nationwide survey.

By the time they are in their third year of college, a majority of female students report experiencing unwanted sexual attention.

A research report on sexual consent among third-level students, carried out by the NUI Galway SMART Consent research team, shows over a third of female students experience sexual coercion along with harassment by electronic means.

While the prevalence of such experiences among male students is not as high, a majority who have reached their third college year also experience sexist hostility, sexual hostility, and unwanted sexual attention.

The nationwide survey of college students highlights the impact of binge drinking and pornography on the sexual behaviour of young people and exposes the ineffectiveness of sex education in schools.

The research, led by NUI Galway lecturer Dr Padraig MacNeela, found 40% of students regard consensual drunk sex as a normal part of university life.

The surveys included in the report shed light on consent-related issues, including:

Sexual harassment: In a survey of 632 students, 54% of first-year women students report experiencing sexual hostility or crude gender harassment at some point since starting college, rising to 64% among second-year women students, and 70% in third- or subsequent year. The comparable figures for men are: 25%, 37%, and 40%;

Perceptions of sex education at school: In a survey of 2,150 students, 71% of women and 63% of men said they were dissatisfied with the sexual health education they received at school;

Perceptions of alcohol and capacity to give consent: In a survey, 753 students read one of two versions of a consent story where both characters were drinking: Some 20% considered the female character too drunk to give consent in the story where she consumed 14 standard drinks (around seven pints of beer), while 33% considered the female character too drunk in the version where she consumed 28 standard drinks.

Some 14% of the students considered the male character too drunk to give consent after 14 standard drinks, and 30% considered him too drunk after 28 standard drinks.

Dr MacNeela said the results show that the social environment in which consent takes place among college students is often unsupportive.

Most women experience harassment, a large majority of all students are dissatisfied with their sexual health education at school, and social norms for drinking minimise the true impact of alcohol on the capacity to give consent,” said Dr MacNeela.

Launching the report, the Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, said the research demonstrates that formal school experiences do not prepare most young people well for managing the sexual decision-making scenarios likely to arise during their time at college.

“The research also shows that our youth are exposed to unacceptable sexual harassment and unwanted sexual activity,” said Ms Mitchell O’Connor.

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