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'Considerable surprise in the room': There was a sexual consent class for TDs and Senators today

Paul Murphy said that his legislation to provide objective sex education in schools is sorely needed.

Paul Murphy (centre) speaking today alongside USI's Damien McClean and Elaine Byrnes.
Paul Murphy (centre) speaking today alongside USI's Damien McClean and Elaine Byrnes.
Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

POLITICIANS WERE TOLD today that secondary school students from first year onwards should be equipped with essential information around sex during a “very successful” seminar on sexual consent at Leinster House.

The seminar was organised by Solidarity-PBP TD Paul Murphy and facilitated by NUIG doctoral researcher Elaine Byrnes.

Alongside former Irish football international Richie Sadlier, Byrnes has been giving sex education classes to teenage boys at Sadlier’s former secondary school of St Benildus in Kilmacud in Dublin.

The consent class in Leinster House came against the backdrop of a bill from Murphy, that he has said is being blocked from being progressed in the Dáil by the government, that would require schools to provide objective sexual education to secondary school students regardless of the school’s ethos.

Byrnes said today that her sexual consent classes, including the one she gave today, are informed by her research with third-level students.

She said that many she comes into contact with lack essential knowledge around issues of sex and consent because they were never taught it in schools.

“I presented findings from my own PhD research,” she said. “The issue of sexual consent is a societal issue, it’s broader than a gender issue. [It's] the importance of us educating young people before they get to third level where my findings came from.

There was considerable surprise in the room at adherence to rape myths, or the level of agreement that young people today have with what are myths in related to rape or the possibility of it occurring. And the role of alcohol in sexual decision-making is something that should be addressed.

Byrnes said that there was one standout from her own research that had really resonated with her that she keeps repeating.

It was when a student said to her: “I think that education at the point has failed us because we haven’t had enough information. I know people who’ve had sex and years later have regretted it.”

Byrnes said: “I think that’s really, really telling. They attribute that to the fact they weren’t equipped with the tools to effectively and confidently communicate consent. For me, it’s really important we row back to first year through to fifth year.”

Objective Sex Education Bill

Murphy said his bill, which would formalise the requirement for objective sex education regardless of a school’s ethos, is essential.

While Minister for Education Richard Bruton ordered a full review of sex education in schools in April, under the current legislation schools would be able to opt out of delivering consent classes done in a particular way due their ethos, Murphy argued.

He said: “Sex education that is received is extremely uneven and, on the whole, is completely unsatisfactory… That has a real impact on young people, particularly on LGBTQ+ people.”

Murphy said that young people should be equipped with the information they need to understand and make informed decisions around sex, and that the way sex education is taught in many schools now denies them that.

Also speaking today was Jane Donnelly, the human rights officer for Atheist Ireland.

She said that the way young people are taught sexual education in Ireland is inadequate and that any effective system “must be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, without religious ethos”.

Donnelly added: “The abortion referendum has changed everything.

TDs can no longer assume that even most Roman Catholic parents want Catholic sex education for their children.

The Dublin South-West TD, meanwhile, accused the government of seeking to block and delay the bill through the denial of a “money message”, or a formal backing from government that it will provide the public funds to support a Private Members’ Bill such as Murphy’s in this case.

Murphy said that the government had sought to delay numerous pieces of legislation in this way in the current Dáil, including the Medicinal Cannabis Bill.

“We’re not going to go away,” he said. “We’re going to continue to demand we get objective sex education that our schools need… and I think we have momentum.”

He said that a number of groups were behind the bill and lobbying for its passing.

“That work [on revising the curriculum] is already being done,” Murphy said. “That process is underway. Let’s get that done. That could be done by the end of the year. And then we could get the legislation passed and be in a position to start rolling this out in January.”

Before anything could be successfully implemented, Donnelly added, teachers would need to be trained and brought up to speed on the effective methods of teaching secondary schools about these issues.

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Sean Murray

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