Take new student sex survey with a big grain of salt

Take new student sex survey with a big grain of salt
We need to teach young people that there is more to sex than just consent, writes David Quinn

A new survey was launched to plenty of publicity earlier this week. If it is at all accurate, no parent should let their children, especially their daughters, anywhere near university or any other third level institution because sexual harassment, abuse and outright rape is so common.

Fortunately, there is no reason to believe in its accuracy, although that is not the same as saying the sexual environment facing a lot of people today isn’t very treacherous sometimes.

The survey has been produced by something called the ‘Active Consent’ unit at the National University of Ireland Galway, in conjunction with the students’ union.

If the survey is to be believed, 29% of female students have had sex against their will, because they were incapacitated at the time, or had force or the threat of force used on them.

The headline figure for male students is 10%.

For students describing themselves as ‘non-binary’, the number is 28%. ‘Non-binary’ means the student identifies as neither male nor female.


The study, called the ‘Sexual Experiences Survey’ (SES), also says that half of first year students reported being sexually harassed since beginning college, rising to 66% among third year students.

Harassment is defined in the survey as “sexist or sexual harassment, unwanted efforts to establish a sexual relationship, and harassment via electronic communication”.

Whenever you see the findings of a survey reported you should immediately look to see how it was conducted. The surveys we can trust the most involve at least 1,000 people randomly chosen across the population being studied and who are representative of that population in terms of age, sex, social class, etc.

We wouldn’t trust the result if they asked the question of a thousand people in a few pubs in Dublin city centre one night because…it wouldn’t be a random sample”

The classic kind of survey we are all familiar with is the political opinion poll, that is, the poll which asks who you would vote for if an election were held today.

We wouldn’t trust the result if they asked the question of a thousand people in a few pubs in Dublin city centre one night because while it might be a big enough number, it wouldn’t be a random sample or representative of the broader population. It would be heavily skewed in favour of young people, and young people who go into pubs in Dublin city centre on a given night at that.

The SES survey at first glance had an impressively large number of people who took part and completed 80% or more of the online questionnaire. Just over 6,000 did so. That’s far more than the usual 1,000 needed for a poll to be considered reliable.

But when you read the survey a bit more closely you discover that there are 180,000 third level students in the country, meaning just 3.2% completed it.

Obviously, an opinion poll involving a thousand people is only a tiny fraction of the general population, much lower than 3.2%. So, surely we can trust the findings of the Sexual Experiences Survey? Not so fast.


When you send out a survey electronically to the whole student population and only 3.2% respond, it is not a random sample. In fact, it is self-selected. That is, the ones who most want to take part do so, and it is quite likely that the students most highly motivated to take part were the ones with a bad experience of college life.

The only way we could be reasonably sure of the findings would be if we knew those taking part were genuinely representative of the student body at large.

In other words, what this survey really tells us is not that a huge number of students at third level have been sexually assaulted or harassed, but that there is a high number among the small percentage who responded to the survey.

It would be a disaster of monumental proportions if 29% of all female students in college were sexually assaulted at some point in their student life.

If the survey was genuinely representative of the student body as a whole, then it would mean that something like 26,000 of the current female population of our colleges have had sex against their will at some point, and about 9,000 of the male students. (This is based on the fact that there are 180,000 students enrolled at third level, split roughly 50-50 between the sexes).

Consent is considered the only thing needed before having sex with someone you may have met only minutes ago”

This would be so bad, we would need either gardaí on campuses at all times to protect students, especially at social events, or else colleges would have to hire lots of private security. If the situation was as terrible as the survey indicates, then students would surely be quitting colleges in droves for their own protection.

In truth, there is no reason to believe it is anything like as bad as the survey indicates.

That said, if 29% of the small minority of female students who did take part in the study have had sex against their will – adding up to about 1,139 in all – that is still very alarming. (The breakdown of those who completed it is two-thirds female, one-third male.)

What’s going on? One part of the answer is surely that we now live in a culture which has been relentlessly sold the message that every adult is potentially sexually available at any time to every other adult.

Consent is considered the only thing needed before having sex with someone you may have met only minutes ago.

Add alcohol into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster, even if not on the scale the survey indicates.

Consent alone is not enough. We need to teach people to reach much higher than this in their sexual relationships.