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Opinion 'Consent can't be delivered in the same way as other subjects by embarrassed teachers'

We need trained facilitators in schools to develop sexual competence and protect the sexual health of young people, writes Elaine Byrnes.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT that Richard Bruton, Minister for Education and Skills, has ordered a “review” of RSE (Relationship and Sexuality Education) is in one way welcome, in another a time-wasting exercise. Welcome, as it reflects some sort of impetus for change; superfluous as it will merely confirm what we already know.

I co-facilitate a sexual health module, being piloted with Transition Year students at the Alma Mater of my colleague, Richie Sadlier. This work, and findings from my PhD research with college students, has strengthened my assertion that our existing approach to sex education in this country is obsolete, inadequate and fails to meet the needs of young people.

There is a requirement for inevitable alteration that goes beyond merely reviewing and enhancing what exists as a matter of urgency.

Limited baseline

Ours is a six-week module, and on week one we conduct a pre-module survey. The rationale for this is to give us a baseline for the boys understanding of sexual health. Unsurprisingly to us, it is limited.

We also ask the three topics they would like to see covered during the module. There is remarkable consistency in this: healthy relationships, consent and contraception. By a happy coincidence these are the basic themes that run through the module. Feedback too has been overwhelmingly positive – from the students themselves, their parents and the school. I believe there are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, from the boys perspective, our focus is on the promotion of sexual competence. There are four underpinning principles to the establishment of adolescent sexual competence in anticipation of the circumstances for first intercourse: absence of regret, willingness (not under duress), autonomy of decision (a natural follow on in the relationship, being in love, curiosity), as opposed to non-autonomous (being intoxicated or peer pressure) and reliable use of contraception.

Interactive and peer-led discussions

Richie and I guide interactive and peer-led activities and discussions related to sexuality. The primary objective of the module is to encourage the boys to explore what positive sexuality means for them and others in a safe, supported environment.

Its intention is also to empower them with the skills to actively and affirmatively negotiate these experiences, both for themselves and others, in sexual relationships. As a sex researcher with a research focus on the communication of consent, I see how conscious the boys are of issues related to consent.

They are also acutely aware of related gendered stereotypes, culturally and societally embedded, that are invariably heteronormative, in which males are depicted as predatory, females passive. We challenge these. This is particularly important to me.

Gendered conversation

When I started my research four years ago, there was little interest in this country certainly, in consent as an issue. While I welcome the national conversation we are now having, it has become one that is highly gendered. And, I see this reflected in the boys, who are all 15/16 years old.

They want to understand what consent means in reality, and how they can communicate it in relationships. Their skewed understanding, informed in part by seemingly relentless media discourse, is that the onus of responsibility is theirs, and theirs alone.

Our approach is to instil in the boys the concept that responsibility for the communication of consent is mutual and bi-directional. For me, it also involves distilling what has become quite a convoluted concept, down to basic respect. Respect for boundaries, respect for feelings, respect for what the other person wants and needs, and what they want and need for themselves.

This is crucial to supporting young people in developing relationships regardless of gender, sexual orientation or identity, that are healthy and mutually satisfying.

‘The Talk’

Secondly, from the perspective of parents. While some of the boys recount open communication with their parents on matters related to sex and sexuality, for most (and this is not unique to South County Dublin!), it has been confined to “The Talk” – an awkward and uncomfortable experience for all involved.

One parent recounted that their son’s participation in the module led to the unexpected and welcome opening of a dialogue at home. I readily understand that there is a certain onus of responsibility on us as parents to facilitate our children’s developing knowledge and education about relationships and sexuality.

I am equally understanding of the reality that it will probably take another generation before we have matured societally in Ireland for this to happen in any meaningful way.

Indeed, in countries with a more progressive approach to sex education, such as Norway and Finland, children learn through both school and home that sex and sexuality are healthy and normative components of the human experience.

Going beyond existing RSE programme

Thirdly, from the perspective of the school there is confidence in – and support for – the delivery of a module that goes way beyond that of the existing RSE programme.

I am still at a loss to understand how a topic such as sexuality is expected to be delivered in the same way as other subjects, by embarrassed teachers who lack training in what is a specialist subject with unique challenges. It is also an unfair burden to expect, for example, a Geography, History or English teacher to effectively “moonlight” as a sexual health educator.

In my experience, the relationship between us as facilitators and the students is very different to a teacher-student relationship. I readily understand how challenging it is for a teacher, regardless of how engaged and enthusiastic they may be in endeavouring to deliver the existing programme, to seamlessly reassume an authoritative role in the next class of their primary subject.

What was at the beginning of our pilot an uncomfortable realisation, has now become a source of frustration for Richie and I. This is that the very real benefits of a comprehensive, interactive, peer-led programme are currently only available to one year in one, single gender school.

It is only by implementing and ensuring consistent delivery by trained facilitators of such a programme in each and every secondary school, that we have the opportunity to develop sexual competence and protect the sexual health of young people.

Elaine Byrnes is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Psychology, NUI Galway. Her research focusses on sexual behaviour, and the communication of consent.  She is an experienced facilitator of consent workshops at third level.

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