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Fighting the Headlines: Active* Consent is working to reduce experiences of sexual violence and harassment for young people

Fighting the Headlines: Active* Consent is working to reduce experiences of sexual violence and harassment for young people

07 May 21
 | 15 MINS

Leading academics tackling sexual harassment on campuses around the country by working with young people to reduce experiences of sexual violence and harassment for young people.

Within our Active* Consent team, there is one thing that we can always count on with the news cycle – eventually consent, sexual violence and harassment will come back around again as a headline focus.

This certainty is not welcome but sobering for our team, as the stories that catch headlines predominantly focus on sexual violence and harassment, such as the recent murder of Sarah Everard in England and the direct outlawing of image-based sexual abuse through Coco’s Law at long last after a prolonged campaign on cyber-bullying and harassment.

With such negative headlines and statistics to counteract on a daily basis, the Active* Consent programme’s ongoing work in collaboration with our colleagues in the rape crisis, NGO and government sector nationally can feel daunting and often like an uphill battle.

Our own Active* Consent research reports, such as the Sexual Experiences Survey of 6026 students in Irish higher education that we conducted in spring 2020 in partnership with the Union of Students in Ireland, catch headlines too for the stark statistics that they reveal about levels of sexual violence and harassment in our institutions.

For example, 29% of females, 10% of males, and 28% of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force, or threat of force. And 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.

These constant headlines and troubling statistics make clear that consent, sexual violence and harassment are not issues that affect only a minority of people living in Irish society, but rather that consent education must be seen as central to work on equality, diversity and inclusion at University of Galway and beyond.

With such negative headlines and statistics to counteract on a daily basis, the Active* Consent programme’s ongoing work in collaboration with our colleagues in the rape crisis, NGO and government sector nationally can feel daunting and often like an uphill battle.

However, our evidence-based collaborative approach to research and programme design is grounded strongly in a sex-positive perspective that is constantly trained on what we can change as a team, how we might go about changing it, and who we need to get into the room (or onto Zoom these days) in order to do so.

Central to this is our conviction that in order to truly tackle the pervasiveness of sexual violence and harassment in Irish and other societies, we need to reach people with positive messaging on consent and sexual health as well as making clear the risks that come with sexual intimacy – risks that are often exacerbated for women, LGBT+ individuals, and those who are disabled as well as Active* Consent research.

Our aim therefore is to support young people, aged 15-25, to have positive and confident sexual health and wellbeing as well as preparing the young people we work with to recognise experiences of non-consent and know how to access support for themselves or others following sexual violence or harassment.

Furthermore we believe that in order to reach young people, you also have to work closely with those that educate and support them, a cohort that includes teachers, parents, college staff and policy makers. We believe that buy-in across this cohort both at the leadership level of management and policy makers and through on the ground support from educators, student leaders, and parents for offering and delivering our programme needs to be won and sustained over time in order to truly make lasting impact on reducing the negative statistics that opened this article.

In time, it is our dream that different headlines replace the dire ones we’ve become so accustomed to expecting.

So where do we begin with driving this work forward? We recently ran a national social media campaign entitled Start Here: Empowering Student and Staff to Respond to Disclosures of Sexual Violence and Harassment in partnership with the Union of Students in Ireland and Galway Rape Crisis Centre. This campaign began with our team’s desire to do something tangible based on one key finding from the Sexual Experiences Survey: 79% of college students who disclosed an experience of sexual misconduct told a close friend. If students were likely to disclose to a peer, how could we prepare their peers to hear this disclosure? And if college students may become more likely to disclose sexual violence or harassment based on increased education in these areas through programmes like ours, how could we better prepare staff?

Our answer to these question was to confront the issue head on and create a business card size “disclosure tips card” that listed basic dos and don’ts of hearing a disclosure and provided access to national support numbers such as the rape crisis centre directory, Sexual Assault Treatment Units, and the Gardaí.

Through social media, we released four short videos breaking down the tips in four simulated text conversations between friends and encouraged followers to engage with the tips in more detail over the eight weeks and take our original open-access 45-minute eLearning module based on Sexual Experiences Survey data, Sexual Violence and Harassment: How to Support Yourself and Your Peers, which is aimed directly at college students but also contains information relevant to staff.

Our calls to action were continuous and wide-reaching but nevertheless focused around the tangible information squeezed onto our little card. In undertaking this ambitious and wide-reaching campaign, we were also very aware of its limits. Exposure to one video or one social media post will not solve the issues we’re naming, and even fully absorbing our tips does mean that you know everything you need to know about supporting someone who discloses an incident to you – you would still benefit from further disclosure training with the Galway Rape Crisis Centre or other colleagues in this sector.

But what matters is that the campaign identified a place to start, and concrete ways to listen, and we identified this need based on our data, striving to identify positive action to counteract ongoing negative experiences of sexual violence and harassment.

Across the Irish educational sector, there is evidence of gathering momentum on these issues that can move us closer to the kind of cross-sectoral and multi-level support our team has identified as necessary for lasting change. The increased investment by our recent ministers of Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor and now Simon Harris, in consent, sexual violence and harassment education, training and policy provision at third-level is promising as institutions currently settle into implementing their action plans submitted this spring in response to the 2019 national consent framework for higher education, the first of its kind. The secondary school sector is now implementing revision of their Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculums which will bring changes for sexual health education in this group.

In the academic year 2021, Active* Consent reached over 17,000 college students at 23 higher-education institutions across Ireland with our online workshop and we are now piloting our secondary school workshops across Ireland.

Despite the continuous growth in our programme since its founding in 2019, we know that we need to reach many more young people and stakeholders, and not only once but repeatedly if we are going to gain the traction we need to change the statistics on negative sexual experiences in Ireland within our lifetime.

One of the things that has been most exciting about launching our secondary school pilot programme is that some of the direct requests for our workshop are coming through the students themselves- a development that suggests that young people are more than ready to not only join but lead activity in this area as they recognise the importance of access to comprehensive consent education as a key component of their access to sexuality as a human right, as defended by the World Health Organization.  We hope you’ll join us and them in taking this work forward.

McIvor, MacNeela and O’Higgins are the co-leads of University of Galway’s Active* Consent which uses research, practical workshops, drama and theatre as well as digital & social media to deliver consent education and training for students and staff in the secondary school and third-level sectors. For more information or to take part in our programming, click here.


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