Documentary entitled The Hunting Ground exposes levels of sexual assault on US campuses.
As part of NUI Galway and the University of Limerick’s Gender Arc Research Seminar Series on Wednesday 21 October, the ILAS (Institute for Lifecourse and Society) centre hosted a research seminar presented by Dr Bill Flack, and moderated by Dr Vesna Malesevic of NUI Galway’s School of Political Science and Sociology. This was seminar that was both intriguing and highly topical particularly in the context of Ireland’s social climate, and in third level education.
Dr Flack, a critical clinical psychologist and traumatologist, is Associate Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University (and a US-UK Fulbright Scholar at Ulster University) who specialises in research on violence against women, focusing on sexual assault among university students, who in turn work with him as research trainees and collaborators on the Bucknell Sexual Assault Research Team.
Dr Flack conducts annual web-based surveys on sexual assault among Bucknell students, focusing primarily on social factors related to assault victimization and perpetration.
He is also a member of the Administrator-Researcher Campus Climate Collaborative (ARC3), which is developing a survey on sexual assault and related factors for general use by US colleges and universities, and is collaborating with his colleagues at Ulster University in research on dating violence as a Fulbright Scholar this autumn.
In opening his presentation, Dr Flack highlighted that one in three women are victims of violence worldwide (World Health Organisation, 2010); a statistic he compounded with the revelation that approximately 20 percent of female students in US universities are sexually assaulted during their time in third level education.
This figure only includes cases of rape or attempted rape, neglecting unwanted physical contact such as groping, inappropriate comments; and various other unwanted sexual behaviours. The statistic is one that has experienced limited variation over the past four decades of research.
The fact that these figures have experienced little or no change across such a period of time – despite the vast cultural and societal advances during that period – suggests that something needs to be done.
Thankfully, campaigners are campaigning vociferously and using those cultural and societal advances to further their campaigns (via the ever-increasingly influential platforms of the press and social media) to pressurise the US Government to take action, resulting in the formation of a White House Task Force in January 2014.
However, as these unchanging figures would also suggest, this process of affecting change and progression is both a slow and a difficult one.
Dr Flack highlighted that one of the White House Task Force’s most telling findings was that disbelief is the most common response to a victim’s opening up to being sexually assaulted by another.
This response is one fuelled potentially by outdated research indicating that only 10 percent of the male population is responsible for all sexual assaults; and the distressing reality that many victims ultimately recant accusations of rape or attempted rape against their assailant – many doing so because of the harrowing nature of the judicial process, low conviction rates, and the pressure that is often exerted on a victim by the accused and/or his or her social group… resulting in a distorted overall figure of false reports of rape and/or sexual assault.
It is also unfortunate that new research relating to sexual assault is not public enough to become common knowledge; the modern world is not yet ready to sit up and pay attention to incontrovertible evidence of sexual assault and this all-too-often results in our passive and often not-so-passive refusal to acknowledge it in the form of data and statistics.
Instead, it is the bravery and determination of sexual assault survivors who are willing to share their story that is serving to improve the situation: The Hunting Ground, a startling documentary film exposé of sexual assault on US campuses, institutional cover-ups and the brutal social toll on victims and their families; author of The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a memoir of Sebold’s own life, her rape and pursuit of justice for and recovery from it; and many article and opinion pieces published nationwide in the US, in which victims detail their traumatic experiences first-hand, such as ‘The Amherst Student’ as highlighted by Dr Flack, are all survivor accounts of their experiences which may be upsetting and uncomfortable to read, but ones that are paramount to shifting age-old, deep-rooted misconceptions as to the nature of sexual assault, both in terms of those who perpetrate and the victims.
Extreme bravery and determination of this nature deserves to be rewarded and, as Dr Flack pointed out, the US is making some progress. Recent research suggests that US universities are actually more likely than the judicial system to take action against those accused of sexual assault. But many issues remain.
The fact that other surveys available in relation to sexual assault have differing results to ARC3’s Campus Climate Survey makes it more difficult to ensure that its findings are widely accepted; however, the majority of its data is consistent in showing a positive correlation, thus making it much more likely to be recognised as accurate.
Greater challenges lie in Dr Flack’s realisation that, at present, the survey does not garner enough information relating to the LGBTQ community; and, perhaps even more significantly, that the survey is seen by some academics as a PR issue and met with resultant institutional reluctance – something Flack co-founded (and currently serves on the leadership team of) Faculty Against Rape (FAR) in 2014 to work against. Also, further afield, ARC3’s survey and those similar in nature face an anti-feminist backlash, and sexual assault survivors and survey advocates are often attacked for supporting it.
So, are there European parallels to CSA research in the US?
In an Irish context, serious sexual assault cases stemming from incidents on Irish university campuses are relatively unheard of in comparison to those analysed by US-based research. However, more recent research reported by Irish media suggests that both sexual harassment and sexual assault are becoming more and more prevalent in Irish universities.
In June 2015, The Irish Times reported that “11 percent of female students believe they were sexually assaulted” in the past year alone at NUI Galway and University College Cork.
Reading further into this report, the article suggests that both male and female students are unsure as to what constitutes consent as well as the attitudes of their own gender towards casual sex.
Meanwhile, a separately conducted survey by Trinity College Dublin reported the figure of female students who believe they were sexually assaulted to be as high as one in four.
Both of these reports were then compounded by recent articles detailing increasingly overt, sexualised behaviours on Irish streets, such as the Irish Independent’s recent ‘He pointed at me, turned to his friends and said: “I fancy that one”‘ article, and, when considered in tandem, they suggest that Ireland has a real issue with the notion of consent and, at the very least, pockets of overly-sexualised behaviour.
Having recognised that there is indeed a problem, Irish universities are now working collaboratively to address its root cause and to prevent it from spiralling out of hand.
This is a process that starts with revising and re-drafting each university’s code of conduct and drawing up a policy outlining the course of action and steps to take in dealing with an incidence of sexual assault involving a university student.
Numerous universities, including NUI Galway and Trinity College, are also staging sexual education classes focusing on the idea of consent and encouraging students to take responsibility for their sexual behaviour by considering its impact on both their own selves and on others. As with Dr Flack’s work and research in the US, these are initiatives that will take time to embed and have impact, but our talking about and raising awareness of them through constructive dialogue and education will help.
In concluding the Q&A section of his seminar, Dr Flack highlighted his belief that all forms of sexual consent should take verbal form; that people should seek permission verbally from others before making physical contact with them.
For many, this may seem like a step too far, but surely with something this important, there is no room for confusion or ambiguity. It is this ambiguity around sex and sexual behaviour – this lack of knowledge and understanding – that has caused this issue to become such a significant one. Only direct, positive pre-emptive action will solve it.
By Neil Slevin