In the light of recent surveys in Trinity College, Áine O'Connell breaks down consent for those confused.
Consent has been in the news in a big way in the last few weeks, with Fifty Shades of Grey enthralling and troubling us in equal measure. The film, which opened on Valentine’s Day, has been criticised heavily for its depiction of a non-consensual sexual relationships and BDSM. Regardless of your own feelings on the film, it’s undeniable that it has brought the issue of consent into the spotlight.
 
Last month, Trinity College’s Student Union (TCDSU) released its sexual consent survey findings and the results are deeply troubling. Approximately twenty-five percent of female students who responded to the survey reported having a “non-consensual sexual experience” and eight per cent (and almost seven per cent of men) have felt stalked or “subject to obsessive behaviour” while attending college. 
 
This is also indicative of a nationwide problem – the Union of Students in Ireland’s “Say Something” survey last year reported similar statistics, including that 38% of non-consensual experiences took place on their college campuses.
 
In the foreword to last year’s report, current President of the Union of Students in Ireland Laura Harmon said that, “The Union of Students in Ireland decided to conduct this study as there was a lack of research on students’ experiences of violence.” Now TCDSU has joined in – but what happens now?
 
At the launch of the TCDSU survey it was noted that, “this is an issue that people want to talk about”. A conversation around consent, assault and healthy sexual lives is badly needed from the age of puberty up, but for most of us reading Campus.ie, it’s a little late to learn about consent. Statistics show that instances of campus assault – both here and in the US – are on the rise.
 
Last year, I helped youth website SpunOut.ie with their sexual health campaign and wrote about the “three C’s” of good sex: consent, communication and comfort. The last two are fairly self-explanatory, but I’ve seen many a student confused about what consent actually means.
 
According to SpunOut.ie, “consent is an agreement between both partners that they definitely want to have sex, or do any sexual act."  It takes place without manipulation, coercion or pressure. Sex, at the end of the day, ought to be enjoyable and comfortable for both parties. Consent is absolutely pivotal to that. 
 
Situations that can be considered non-consensual include any time someone feels pressured into a sexual act or if a partner considers themselves “entitled” to sex. A drunken one night stand you’ll live to regret can be consensual, but it can be non-consensual too.
 
That’s where is gets complicated, particularly in Ireland. We have got the second-highest binge drinking rate in the world, and students are some of the main culprits. Sensible drinking may be all the rage elsewhere, but it’s obviously something that the Irish aren’t good at. Nights out involve alcohol and, often, shifting, which can lead to something more.
 
So there’s a question that gets posed every time I mention consent: can someone say “yes” when they’re completely drunk? It is one of those arguments thrown about in response to assault cases in the States; “she was too drunk, it’s nobody’s fault but her own” and the like. This isn’t true, not for a second. 
 
Yes, there’s a responsibility to protect oneself while drinking but the absence of a “no” does not mean “yes”. If someone can’t consent to sex then to continue with the sexual act can – and should be – considered assault.
 
There’s a mentality that sexual assault is equal to struggling and shouting “no” but the reality is much more insidious. One can feel too shy to say no – that’s remarkably common – and there’s the classic “they just kept asking” to contend with too.
 
There’s many an excuse made by Irish men and women to make the issue of sexual assault go away: this needs to stop before an epidemic hits. TCDSU have promised to respond to the issues raised by their survey by holding mandatory consent workshops on campus. But more importantly, a national conversation needs to take place and a change in attitude needs to happen.
 
Consent should be mutual, tangible and done without duress. It doesn’t have to be a monotonous “Yes, I agree to have sex with you”, but it does need to be present – consent is a requirement of sex just as much as anything else.