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'Young people learn about sex through porn, many have no idea what a healthy relationship looks like'

Parents and teachers need to be better equipped to talk to young people about sex and relationships, Noeline Blackwell has said.

PARENTS AND TEACHERS need to be better equipped to talk to young people about sex and relationships, the CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) has said.

Noeline Blackwell said many young people’s perception of sex is skewed because they ‘learn’ about it through pornography.

“A lot of the problem has been that people are not talking about [sex] to young people,” she told TheJournal.ie.

“We again and again encounter young people whose experience of sexual activity right through their teens is all obtained from their mobile phones, from porn, and they have no understanding of what a healthy sexual relationship looks like.”

Blackwell said if children’s physical development was treated the same way as their emotional development often is, “we would be seen as a society which had children who are entirely unfit and unable to cope physically”.

“The same thing is happening emotionally. It is really important in our education system that children are developed intellectually, of course physically but also emotionally so that they’re equipped to face whatever it is they need when they’re out there.”

‘At a loss or entirely ignorant’ 

Training for teachers in the area of sexual health and relationships has improved in recent years, but the standard of sexual education in Ireland can vary widely.

“The teachers who deliver this kind of information need to be properly able to do that. That means training,”Blackwell told us.

“We would say one of the things that should be available for a second-level school teacher during their higher diploma is a specialisation in the area of healthy relationships and emotional development. That could easily be done the same way they’re trained to do PE or Greek or whatever it is.”

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is currently looking into the content of the RSE (relationships and sexuality education) curriculum and how it is taught in schools.

Blackwell said parents often feel out of their depth when talking to their children about sex, and many are unaware of what their children are looking up online.

“The gap is very often in terms of how parents can best support their children.

“This is moving so fast that it is clear that parents are very often at a loss or entirely ignorant of what is going on. We know that most children get their information from their friends or the internet, before they go next or near their parents.”

DRCC 40th 002 Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the DRCC, pictured at a conference to mark the centre's 40th anniversary on Thursday. Andres Poveda Andres Poveda

Blackwell said children have for generations gone to friends for information about sex before speaking to their parents, but noted that the internet has changed the playing field entirely.

“We do need to develop new tools for parents to better understand how they can support their children,” she said.

Myths and victim blaming

Blackwell made the comments in an interview with TheJournal.ie at a conference during the week marking the 40th anniversary of the DRCC.

A common theme throughout the event was the need for gardaí, lawyers and judges to be trained to properly deal with victims and survivors of sexual assault and rape. Blackwell said such training is “absolutely essential”.

“My own background is as a lawyer. I can say that it was not really until I came in to the rape crisis centre, that I saw how inadequately lawyers were equipped to deal with areas of intimate violence.

“The trouble is that, again in the absence of training, the myths that we all have in our society go into the courtroom as well, go into the gardaí.

“So the gardaí have started developing specialist units to deal with severe domestic violence and sexual violence. It’s made a massive difference to the way they think about these kinds of crimes. We need to expand that further into our lawyers, including our judiciary,” Blackwell stated.

An Garda Síochána has specialised units which deal with sexual assault and violence; and gardaí tasked with such cases receive additional training.

A working group established by the Department of Justice and Equality is currently examining the prosecution of sexual offences in Ireland. Its remit includes looking into access to specialist training for gardaí, members of the judiciary and legal professionals dealing with such offences.

Backwell said expanding this type of training would help people understand how intimate violence happens and why it should be treated differently to other crimes.

It’s not like stealing your mobile phone … it’s totally different when somebody steals your dignity in the course of sexual violence, when they break your trust, and when you are the one who feels ashamed. And where, very often, the law will still say, ‘What did you do to provoke them?’

Blackwell said growing up in a society that promotes certain myths about sexual assault, including that the victim is somehow to blame, can have a lasting subconscious impact on a person. 

“So the media, the judiciary and the legal profession all need an awful lot more understanding of where the blame for these kinds of crimes happens, and to lose some of the ideas that we’ve all been brought up with.

“Of course, lawyers who’ve been brought up with these myths take them into the courtroom with them, of course they do. So that is why it’s so important that there today is an obligation on Ireland now to ensure training in these areas for lawyers and the judiciary.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence you can contact the DRCC’s National 24-Hour Helpline on 1800 778 888. More support information is available here.

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