#AskConsent campaign a success but a legal definition of consent is still required

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In mid-September, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) launched its #AskConsent campaign in conjunction with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the White Ribbon Campaign.

Funded by Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, the three week educational campaign aimed to help people understand that sex without consent is rape, the second most serious crime in the Irish statute book, as well as aiming to get people talking about consent.

The main reference to consent is in Section 9 of the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, 1990 which states: “It is hereby declared that in relation to an offence that consists of or includes the doing of an act to a person without the consent of that person any failure or omission by that person to offer resistance to the act does not of itself constitute consent to the act.”

The DRCC believes this reference is not specific enough and there needs to be an actual definition introduced into the Act. The organisation’s policy person, Shirley Scott said: “We need a statutory definition of consent. Sex without consent is clearly understood as rape, however the Irish legislature has yet to introduce a statutory definition of consent. Instead, Irish courts continue to rely for legal guidance on consent that comes from case law dating as far back as the 19th century.

“The DRCC sees the publication of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 as an opportunity to introduce a legislative definition of consent. A definition of consent in this new Bill would go a long way to strengthening the overall legislation on sexual offences. And while it isn’t included we would hope that the Minister for Justice [Frances Fitzgerald, TD] will consider our recommendations and include one.”

On the DRCC website, consent is defined as “the voluntary agreement in a relationship where there is equal power to engage in a particular sex act”. The organisation said it has also submitted a definition of consent to Minister Fitzgerald and the All Party Committee on Justice.

Jennifer Gavin who is in charge of social media and the digital awareness campaign for the #AskConsent campaign said the idea came about for the following reasons: “Here in the DRCC we have accompanied far too many victims to the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU) who were in no way capable of giving consent, for a variety of reasons, but who never report the crimes. They, nor the perpetrators, were aware that sex without consent is rape.  But the victims would still suffer all the consequences of being a victim of rape from the physical, psychological and emotional aftermath.

“Unfortunately only 1 in 10 people actually report a sexual assault.  The issue of consent is something that we come across on a daily basis in the centre.  For example a call may come in to the 24-hour helpline where the person is not sure, they may say that they haven’t been raped but something happened.  There seems to be a lot of confusion out there especially among young people when it comes to sex and consent.

“TCD carried out a Sexual Consent Survey this year of 1,000 students; 25% of women and 4.5% of men have had a non-consensual experience. That means sex without consent is rape, we know the law is black and white but many people are not aware of this.  This is why in the DRCC we felt it was important to raise awareness on what consent actually means.  This is why we have been lobbying to have a definition of consent included in the new sexual offences bill.”

This lack of awareness about sex without consent being rape raises questions about what schools, third level colleges and work places are doing to increase awareness of the issue. Gavin said that although consent was often overlooked during talks and lectures this is changing and is being included in informative talks.

“Over the last few years we have noticed more colleges, in particular student unions, getting involved in raising awareness about consent.  This is usually part of their sexual health and guidance weeks where information and sometimes consent workshops have been provided,” said Gavin.

“Education is vital when it comes to raising awareness about sexual consent but this year has been very different. It has been fantastic to be directly involved with the student unions and to raise awareness about consent. From talking to many students over the past few weeks most felt that their sex education in secondary school was sadly very basic and lacking in providing talks around the issues of sexual consent and relationships.

“However, many schools have started to contact the DRCC to provide an outreach talk to their students. One of our trained volunteers would then go out and deliver a talk on not only sexual consent but also on the services the DRCC provide.”

With the campaign still in motion Gavin talked about the success of the #AskConsent thus far: “The #AskConsent Campaign has probably been our most successful awareness raising campaign to date.  Since launching, the #AskConsent Campaign has generated a huge response from the media and public alike. As the online campaign is still ongoing we haven’t started the post campaign analysis. However, briefly looking at the DRCC website analytics, hits to [our] website were up by 25% from this time last year.

“Twitter has also been a fantastic format especially with the #AskConsent hashtag to get the message out there and to get people talking, especially students.  Some students have been talking for the first time about their own experiences saying just how vital education is. We have also had more people calling looking for support and information which is fantastic.”

If you have been affected by any of the topics covered in this article you can contact the DRCC on their 24-hour helpline on 1800 778 888 or visit their website.

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