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Opinion: Education must be at the heart of all efforts to create a culture of consent

Dr Siobhán O’Higgins & Dr Caroline West of the Active* Consent programme in NUI Galway look at what needs to be done to improve our understanding of consent.

Dr Siobhán O’Higgins & Dr Caroline West

TOMORROW IS THE International Day of Consent, and it is important that we situate consent education in the context of human rights and sexual rights.

Sexual rights can be defined as all persons have the right to control and decide freely on matters related to their sexuality; to be free from violence, coercion, or intimidation in their sexual lives; to have access to sexual and reproductive healthcare information, education, and services; and to be protected from discrimination based on the exercise of their sexuality.

To highlight how consent fits into a positive sexual rights framework, we need to understand how effective education can be developed to allow each individual to understand consent, boundaries, sexual violence, relationships, and more.

Education is key

There are several ways that positive sexual rights can be achieved through education, which will allow people to access comprehensive ways to live their best sexual lives, free of coercion, control, and abuse. This educational approach can include some of these factors outlined by McKee et al:

  • Freedom from unwanted activity
  • An understanding of consent
  • An understanding of safety
  • Relationship skills
  • Lifelong learning
  • Open communication
  • Agency

Sexual violence does not just happen on an individual basis. It is systemic in our society and underpinned by racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and sexism.

Therefore, in order to tackle sexual violence from the roots upwards, we need to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach. It is essential that this process includes parents, teachers, support services, Gardai, the legal system, and more. Addressing consent through this cultural model can help us build a consent culture across Irish society.

Tackling sexual violence means educating young people on more than just the biological or physical side of sex. It is critical to explore the emotional side of sex with young people so they can make informed decisions about when to have sex, who they want to have sex with, and understand what kind of sex they are consenting to.

Young people need to understand boundaries, pleasure, risk, and how to communicate if they are to empower themselves to make decisions about engaging in sex, but also to identify healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Creating a ‘culture of consent’

Ensuring that young people experience good sexual health is a key public health concern. We know from research that in Ireland young people are already experiencing sexual violence and harassment and that there is an epidemic of domestic abuse in this country.

Positive sexual rights are supported by a culture of consent, where victims of violence are supported to access support, and the justice system is overhauled to ensure that it is not re-traumatising for victims, and perpetrators are dealt with appropriately.

Ensuring young people experience good sexual health is a key public health concern, as according to UN research ‘few children and young people receive preparation for their lives that empowers them to take control and make informed decisions about their sexuality and relationships freely and responsibly’.

So it is not surprising that young people, whether in school or college, are asking that sexuality education moves beyond biological functions, sexually transmitted diseases, and reproduction into issues like dating, online behaviour, sexual pleasure, relationships, sexual agency, consent, LGBTQI+ concerns and sexual coercion.

Such holistic sexual health programming needs to be delivered in an environment that normalises conversations surrounding sex, sexuality, and sexual health.

While we await the updated RSE curriculum to be announced from the NCCA, there are some areas that we can work together to address, as there is still some reluctance to deliver sexuality education that actually include crucial information and skills needed to form healthy relationships and content related to sexual pleasure.

This leaves our children to learn about sexuality from a range of sources, including entertainment media. Their online sexual experiences (e.g., pornography use, sexual chatting, sexualised social media use, and nude image exchange) provide a new context for sexual socialisation of adolescents.

Young people actively seek out entertainment media because it gives them the kinds of information they want, in ways that seem relevant to them, which is often not the case in the kind of classes they get in school.

Parents and teachers

The role of parents in their adolescent child’s sexual and relationship decision-making is crucial, but they can find communicating with their teens about these topics really difficult.

Few parents had comprehensive sex education themselves, and this compounds concerns about the effects of sexual media on their children’s ideas and aspirations, worries about the adequacy of teacher training to deal with sensitive topics and possible conflict between school and parental values.

All of which makes the NCCA’s aspirations to update our RSE programme to include sexual rights fraught with difficulty.

The Active* Consent programme works within a positive sexual rights framework to create safe spaces for young people to unpack gendered sexual scripts, social norms, internalised peer pressure, the nuances of consent, and ways to improve their communication skills around consent.

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To achieve holistic sexuality education, the different ways people learn needs to be accommodated. In order to meet these needs, Active* Consent has developed workshops, eLearning modules, social media content, a filmed theatrical production, and a soon to be released digital hub and podcast.

Over 27,000 third-level students have engaged with our workshops since 2020, and feedback highlights that young people do want to understand how to better navigate and negotiate intimacy and relationships.

The International Day of Consent provides an opportunity for us all to reflect on how we can build a consent culture and support everyone to develop the skills to be active in their consent communications. We can all play a role to ensure that everyone can have their sexual and human rights respected.

Dr Siobhán O’Higgins is a Team Co-lead and Dr Caroline West is the Outreach Coordinator for Active* Consent based in NUI Galway. Find out more at @activeconsent or https://www.nuigalway.ie/student-life/student-support/active-consent/.

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Dr Siobhán O’Higgins & Dr Caroline West

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