A SMART consent report was issued this past August. It provides a valuable insight into the understanding of consent among students in third level education. The concept of consent and nuances surrounding the topic have been the subject of many discussions in recent years. The research allows for a better comprehension of the general public’s awareness of the issue, highlighting areas where that comprehension should still be improved. It explicitly addresses the problem with regards to students and provides a base, upon which appropriate authorities can begin considering ways to make student life better and safer.
The report was published in support of sustainability of the SMART Consent initiative and was built on the foundation of research that was published in 2014 as Young People, Alcohol, and Sex: What’s Consent Got to Do With It and was commissioned by Rape Crisis Network Ireland. The report revealed that university students believed in not having sex without consent, however, that there were still a few fundamental misunderstandings of issues surrounding consent. Those specifically included such themes as how alcohol affects a person’s ability to give consent as well as whether consent can be assumed if it had been given on a previous occasion. Many more surveys were carried out in the past five years, which broadly confirmed the old U.S. findings that roughly 1 in 5 female students experienced sexual assault during their time at college.
The SMART consent report focused on the effect consent workshops have on students’ understanding of the concept. The SMART consent workshop was used as an example by which the success rate of similar workshops was measured. The report also touched on other related topics like sexual harassment, sexual health education at school, and attitudes to the role of alcohol in sexual decision-making. The research was based on the definition of consent coined originally by Hickman and Muehlenhard, namely that consent is “the freely given verbal or nonverbal communication of a feeling of willingness to engage in sexual activity”. That definition is consistent with the current legal definition adopted in Ireland stating that “A person consents to a sexual act if he or she freely and voluntarily agrees to engage in that act”.
The research findings revealed many weaknesses in the general situation of sexual health and safety in third level education. In a survey of 632 students, 54% of first-year women students reported experiencing sexual hostility or crude gender harassment at some point since starting college. The number rose to 64% among second year women students, and 70% of women students in third year or a subsequent year; the comparable figures for men were: 25%, 37%, and 40%. The research also revealed such shocking figures as that only one-third of people surveyed thought that someone who consumes 28 standard drinks would be too intoxicated to give consent. It also pointed to the faults of the current sex education curriculum taught in schools, indicating that 58% of females wished they knew more regarding sexual health upon completing their schooling. On the bright side evidence suggested that the SMART Consent workshop were effective, with 60% of participants strongly agreeing that they had the skills they needed to address the topic of sexual consent after the workshop.
The research arrives at the conclusion that implementing further consent workshops in third level Institutions will likely benefit students by better educating them on the concept and surrounding nuances, as well as preparing them to make more informed choices in regard to their sexual decision making.