Consent. It’s the hot topic word of the moment, being flitted around the media, around the twitter sphere, with differing opinions from many people from many walks of life, stretching over different generations. The publication of Louise O Neill’s “Asking For It” has sparked a debate that isn’t going away any time soon. More recently, Hollyoaks has run a successful campaign peering into what exactly consent is, and what it isn’t. The concept should be simple; do both of these people want to have sexual intercourse, or any sexual contact with each other, and are they of a mental capacity to make such a decision? However, as we all know, nothing in life is simple, nothing is ever black and white and it is in the shades of grey where we find our current situation in Ireland.
I consider myself extremely lucky to be one of the students who benefitted from a pilot project run by the HSE between 2003 and 2008 in Co. Wexford, The RESPECT project, which not only taught students about contraception and the (excuse the pun) ins and outs of sex and relationships, but also taught them about consent (though not using the word consent), about how it is okay to say no, it is okay to change your mind, and how important it is at all times to ensure that both parties are happy to continue, whether that be a simple kiss, or full blown sex or anything in between. The programme aimed to educate 2nd and 3rd year students, between the ages of 13 and 15, who are technically under the age of consent (17 in Ireland), about protecting themselves physically and mentally while making their way through life as a teenager, relationships and all that is included in both. It aimed to reduce what was a staggeringly high rate of teenage pregnancy in Co. Wexford by educating teenagers (hopefully) BEFORE they began having these relationships and having sex as to what to do to ensure that if it was wanted, it was protected and safe sex, and if not, how to refuse and have their refusal recognised. The appeal of the project was that while in a school background (it was done through double classes, normally replacing things like PE and SPHE), it was not predominantly taught by teachers – 4 sessions were taught by a teacher (in our case, a PE teacher), 4 sessions by a health professional from outside the school, and 4 sessions taught by older students (4th and 5th years, so 16-17 year olds) who had been trained in the programme.
The sessions taught by the students (interestingly, the ones about consent) are the ones which stay with me, not only because when the time came after going through the programme I became one of the “Peer Educators”, but because it was relatable. There is only so much that teenagers will take from someone many years older than them, who they consider “too old to understand what teenage life is like”, especially when it comes down to their interactions with boys. There is also the mortification factor; I know personally the idea of talking to the woman who berated me for forgetting my PE gear about what my boyfriend was asking me to do, or anything sex related would have had me hiding under the table. Whereas when its an older student, they get it, they’ve been (and are) in your shoes, and that helps to break down barriers.
RESPECT taught us to say no to sex if we didn’t want it, in a way that would not jeopardise a relationship or offend (and if it did, well, that person really wasn’t very nice to begin with). It ensured that we knew that it wasn’t just girls who were pressured into sex, it happens to boys too, and taught us how to remove ourselves from the situation if we were unhappy with the response we were getting. While it did teach us about contraception and the dangers of unprotected sex (a slideshow of STDs is engrained on my retinas FOREVER), it also taught us the importance of saying how you feel, if you are unsure how to say no, and to protect yourself by ensuring that both parties are happy to consent to what is going on. All these years later (I received the programme in 2004/2005 and was peer supporter in 2006/2007) myself and others who taught the programme still laugh at the breakdown of the consent issue “Say No three times and make a cup of tea”, otherwise known as “Reduce, Refuse, Remove” – but it was memorable, it was effective, and the tea is merely a “remove yourself from the situation” excuse. It’s an education I feel extremely lucky to have received, as the programme is no longer running thanks to lack of financial investment in sex education after the end of the pilot project, blamed on the worsening economic crisis.
In January 2012, a report was created to examine the process of the project. It declared that it was a success, however was financially unviable in our current economy. As a result, not only has it not been rolled out to other schools despite the successful outcome, but it has been removed from the schools it was in, resulting in patchy sex education, if any, being received by students. From discussing the topic with friends and family members; the theme of it being rushed over, focusing mostly on not getting pregnant, and even in some cases being taught by religion teachers who advocated for celibacy only – this isn’t good enough for our young people. In addition to this, absolutely NONE of the sex education is based around same-sex couples – while implying that statistically more STDs and dangerous casual sex is carried out by those not in heterosexual relationships, we are not educating our young LGBT people on how to protect themselves. Consent is not included in this equation, merely the biological realities, if any.
The concept of concept is simple – say yes or no, and obey the instruction from the other person. It gets blurry when things like alcohol are involved, while the general rule says “If she/he’s too drunk to say no, she/he’s too drunk to say yes”, there are situations where adults are consenting while intoxicated and we cannot label all drunken sex to be lacking in consent. It is when one person is incapable of giving consent – requiring assistance to walk, to sit up, to remember their own name – and others continue that the lines get blurry. This is not an easy topic to manage and it isn’t something which can be easily remedied – there are far too many what ifs involved. However, to begin with educating our young people on the concept of consent, of making sure the other person knows what they’re doing and is happy to do so, is an essential need in our education system and it is lacking. As an election is coming up, I’m sure there are going to be politicians promising the sun, moon and stars in order to gain that all important vote – when one comes to my doorstep, the allocation of funds towards furthering this type of education for our young people will be an important topic of discussion.
This is unlikely to be the last I write about this subject, its something I feel very strongly for. I can only hope and wish that by the time my 18 month old hits his teenage years that as well as our sit down with him discussing the do’s and don’ts of dealing with the arena that is relationships and sex in the teenage years, that his education in school about the topic is comprehensive and fair, not brushed under the rug in a way that just says “Don’t do it”. That scene from Mean Girls, intended as a comic relief scene, unfortunately is all too true in our education system a reflection of the level of sex education. I can only hope for change, and try to work towards it in any way that I can.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned above, or would like more information on the work being done to try improve treatment of victims of sexual violence, you can get more information here and here.
I’m interested in finding out what level of sex education has been received by others; I understand that my standard of education was far superior than that carried out in most schools, but am interested in finding out what others have been told, or whether the subject was broached at all. Let me know in the comments, lets start a discussion on the topic of consent and its place in sex education.
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