By Imasha Costa
As of Monday, 20th September, the Higher Education Institutions of Ireland launched the #UnmuteConsent campaign in a way to drive a positive conversation on consent and a way to end sexual violence and harassment. Sexual violence and harassment is a problem within higher education campuses and is often under-reported. This campaign was formed by the findings from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and Active*Consent Sexual Experiences Survey that was launched in 2020. #UnmuteConsent seeks to mobilise the student community to make a difference, by allowing them to speak out and enhance their knowledge about consent, and ultimately challenge and change behaviours.
Sexual consent is described as the freely given verbal or non-verbal communication of a feeling of willingness to engage in sexual activity. This description entails an ongoing, mutual, and preferably verbal communication, and is consistent with the description of consent in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) 2017, as whereas the individual “freely and voluntarily agrees to engage in the act.” With the 6026 students that responded to the 2020 Survey, most identified significant evidence of unwanted touching, attempted or completed penetration, acts of coercion, and force or threat of force. Even though the findings are shocking, unsurprisingly enough there have been comparable studies that have been made in Australia, the US, and the UK.
#UnmuteConsent is said to roll out across every Higher Education Institute campus as well as the website www.unmuteconsent.ie which will highlight the support, resources and training available in each university and institute technology. As students are returning to campuses across Ireland, consent will be introduced and formed as a part of their induction process, in addition to the tools and support that this campaign aims to highlight.
Alongside engaging with the support and training within the institutions, students are encouraged to:
- Speak out / report unacceptable behaviour and access support
- Be active and challenge perceived norms of unacceptable behaviour
- Talk about consent and relationships in a positive and confident way
- Practice consent in their relationships and actions
Simon Harris TD, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, commented that since his appointment to the role he has worked with student representatives, staff representatives and higher education institutions to ensure that there is a zero tolerance approach to violence and harassment. Harris also states that ‘I am pleased that our students and management are working together to create a safe environment for all and to ensure that victims of sexual violence and harassment feel safe to come forward. We have leaders in this field. We have to change the culture in every single campus and we will.’
Furthermore, Claire Austick, President of the Union of Students in Ireland believes that it is really positive to see a national campaign being rolled out in higher education institutions to raise awareness as well as build a culture of active consent within campuses. According to Austick, the aim of this campaign is to empower students to talk about consent and contribute to a culture change which they are hoping to see.
This campaign is supported by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), The Irish Universities Association (IUA), the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). Further information on the campaign can be found at www.unmuteconsent.ie.
Statistics from the Active* Consent / USI Sexual Experiences Survey (2020) on attitudes, practices, and intentions regarding sexual consent are set out below. 6,026 students completed a survey as part of the research to provide a large national sample across gender, sexual orientation, and year in college.
- 40% of students that completed the survey question have heard sexual consent issues being discussed by other students on campus
- Only 38% of students that completed the survey question think that consent should be asked before any kind of sexual behaviour, including kissing, or petting
- Encouragingly 90% of students that completed the survey question would ask their partner if they were interested in engaging in sexual intercourse
- 20% of female respondents to the survey question think that asking for sexual consent is awkward compared to 34% of male respondents