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Saturday 25 March 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Mary Mitchell O'Connor on consent If no means no and yes means yes, where does the confusion lie?
Minister for Higher Education says the statistics paint a picture of our third level institutions hot housing harassment and assault.

IF NO MEANS no and yes means yes, where does the confusion lie?

Why does it feel like we are in the trenches in the gender wars?

The fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal has resulted in ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ entering the vernacular.

Closer to home Louise O’ Neill’s disturbing second novel ‘Asking For It’ has been adapted for stage and is making its much-anticipated opening in the Abbey theatre in November.  

The air is heavy with conflict as we try to define the blurred lines between the sexes.

Sexual harassment and violence is a part of the higher educational experience for all too many students and particularly girls and women.

In Ireland, research by NUIG’s Dr Pádraig MacNeela found that 25% of women students, in a sample of 1,400, had experienced unwanted sexual contact or attempts at unwanted sexual contact through the use or threat of violence.

32% of a sample of 240 students reported they would find it difficult to tell their partner they did not want to have sex.

Staggering statistics  

Nearly 25% of our 18-29 year old population attend some form of third level institution. That means over 21,000 female students have experienced sexual harassment or violence.  

In 2015, 45% of those who experienced sexual assault who presented to one the six sexual assault treatment units said they were students.

Recently three female students reported sexual assaults in Cork and two have dropped out of college.

All of these figures and column inches make for very troubling reading.

Frighteningly they show some serious deficits in confident sexual communication.

There is a need to promote a culture of verbal and non-verbal consent and I believe that this area is being addressed by the voluntary commitments that the institutions are already making. Mandatory consent workshops have been developed and evaluated. In a collaborative environment they pose questions around sexual etiquette; they teach students how to clearly communicate ‘no means no’.

In Government we are looking at how our laws respond to sexual harassment, cyber harassment and hate crimes.

We welcome the Law Reform Commission’s opening up a review of sexual consent in our law.

However I suspect we have bigger issues festering. And our institutions are just a microcosm of society at large.  

The figures paint a picture of our third level institutions hot housing harassment and assault. These experiences will have a considerable impact on student wellbeing, academic attainment, student retention, institutional reputation and future student recruitment. A commitment to addressing these issues is required within every educational institution, from senior leadership down.

As Minister for Higher Education, I am looking to how best to address and support safe learning environments for all students, where they can flourish and reach their potential.

Duty of care

To that end, I have determined that institutions in receipt of public funding must demonstrate a uniform minimum standard of best practice engagement. Moving the voluntary commitment that many institutions already demonstrate to a formal footing. My office will be supporting a small working group to establish a best practice and policy models to address this issue.

Our institutions of education have a duty of care to their students. It is clear, that there is huge energy and appetite to address this issue from the students, academics, NGOs and the institutions themselves.

Today I have convened a National Workshop in Dublin Castle. I have invited Presidents of institutions, academics, leaders in the field of sexual etiquette and health on campus, the gardaí and of course the most important people in the room – the students.

This is not a talking shop. This is a determined move to help me join the dots. To work out a legislative process that makes our campuses safer places for all our students.

We pride ourselves in providing excellence in education but we must also pride ourselves in providing a safe learning environment. This must include safety from sexual harassment, assault and safety from the fear and threat of it.

In support of such initiatives and to complement them, I believe it is both timely and appropriate to formulate a standard of institutional responsibility to address sexual harassment and assault to be formally incorporated into governance and regulatory requirements for anybody delivering publicly funded third level education.

I want us to come out of the trenches and face the issue head on. Informed by evidence, I want to create campuses that are safe and respectful for all.

Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor convenes a National Workshop on Consent and ending Sexual Violence in Third Level Education, Dublin Castle, today. 

Mary Mitchell O'Connor
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