We need to challenge perceptions around sexual assault and harassment – Harris

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has said society needs to challenge the perception of what sexual assault is, adding he was “stunned” by the prevalence of attacks among students.

Almost three in 10 female students have reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force or threat of force during their time in college, according to a Union of Students Ireland (USI) survey published in June.

The survey found that 29% of female, 10% of male and 28% of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force or threat of force during their time in college.

Minister Harris will meet the National Advisory Committee on sexual harassment and violence in third-level education on Monday.

He said he wants to tackle the prevalence of sexual assaults among students attending third-level education.

“A third of female students reported having been raped. Let that sink in. Two thirds had been sexually harassed. I didn’t think I lived under a rock but I was stunned by its findings,” he said.

Mr Harris said sexual harassment, sexual intimidation, rape and gender-based violence are becoming increasingly common crimes.

“We know that reports of sexual assaults and rape peak during freshers and rag weeks,” he said.

“We also need to challenge the perception of what sexual assault and harassment is. Not all cases involve violence. Not all leave visible marks.

Trinity College Dublin Credit: Brian Lawless/PA

“We must challenge the misconception that this is a woman’s issue. The more we see it through a gender specific lens, the more likely we are to fail.

“So, it is time to cop on. It is time for us to confront this and it is time for us to do something about it.

“Thankfully, many victims are more willing to come forward now but the warning signs in the USI survey should be a cause to action.

“We shouldn’t presume that the problem begins or ends in our third-level institutions.”

Mr Harris said he is determined to deal with the “epidemic” of sexual assault at third level.

“I want the third-level sector not to be a problem area but a leader. In respect. In inclusion. In zero tolerance. Consent is not an option. It is a requirement.”

Mr Harris said students must be taught the importance of consent.

“I don’t care what a victim was wearing. I don’t care how many drinks the perpetrator or the victim had. I don’t care if you believed he or she was ‘up for it’ or not. I don’t care if they came home with you. Sex without consent is assault and it is a crime.”

Mr Harris pointed to how children are taught sex education and the influence of social media.

He said the issue cannot be addressed “until we confront the uncomfortable reality that this is happening”.

“It can start in our homes and in our schools. It can begin when we teach our children about sex through a prism of judgment or shame. Or when our children access violent, subversive porn through the phones. Or when our teenagers begin to use dismissive, dehumanising language towards each other,” he said.

“It can happen through toxic cultures in our sports clubs or through judgment and jealousy amplified by social media,” he said.