In April of 2021, students across Ireland received an email containing a link to a Higher Education Authority (HEA) survey on student experiences of sexual violence and sexual harassment. The findings from it, published in January 2022, made for depressing, if not entirely unsurprising, reading. Of the 8000 students that responded to the survey, more than 1000 students experienced non-consensual vaginal penetration. Over a third of female respondents have said that they have experienced non-consensual sex, whether that be penetrative or oral, through coercion, incapacitation, or threat of force. Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD said in response to these findings that “I think we’re starting this too late to be completely honest. We can do more on consent when we get to third-level… We should make the classes mandatory.”
Sexual consent classes and workshops are not novel ideas in third-level. Trinity Halls in conjunction with Together Consent TCD runs a consent workshop for all incoming residents, and several universities country-wide are now offering consent workshops for all incoming first-year students, in accordance with Simon Harris’ statement. However, these workshops are not yet compulsory, and as such those who choose to attend are more likely to already have some background knowledge or appreciation of the importance of consent education. Those who may need consent education the most are the very group that would not care to attend non-obligatory classes. Considering that consent workshops have been run at third-level for some years now, and only last year students have revealed that huge numbers have still been subject to harassment and assault, it is clear that another approach must be taken in conjunction with these workshops.
“It is an undeniable fact that a significant number of secondary school students are having sex, and yet they are often doing so without a background of proper sexual and consent education”
In order to ensure that all young people in our country have access to consent education, it is imperative that secondary schools provide these classes alongside effective sexual anatomy and education lessons. This is especially important because according to a widespread survey conducted by Durex in 2017, the average age for an Irish person to lose their virginity is 17. It is an undeniable fact that a significant number of secondary school students are having sex, and yet they are often doing so without a background of proper sexual and consent education, which often leaves people, especially young girls, in incredibly vulnerable situations. 90% of rape crisis calls made in Ireland come from women who have been assaulted by men. Considering that many girls start to have sex in their teens, and that the average age for a girl to lose her virginity in Ireland is lower than that of a boy, sexual consent education must begin earlier than third level to safeguard young girls from unwanted sexual advances, harassment, and assaults.
Every time these statistics are mentioned, the #NotAllMen movement reveals itself in full force. And whilst it is true that not all men sexually abuse women, it cannot be denied that there is a serious problem in our country regarding young boys’ attitudes toward sex. Boys in the schoolyard often receive no consequences for teasing, bullying, and harassing their female classmates, with young girls merely being told not to complain because he’s only-teasing-you-because-he-likes-you! If this misogynistic culture is left to develop without adequate intervention during adolescence, this fosters a sense of entitlement in men and boys who all too often do not view the women that they engage in sexual relations with as human beings with equal worth. Human beings who deserve not to be forced against their will to perform or endure unwanted sexual acts.
“Educators in Ireland must teach young people how to stay safe during sex through lessons on different contraceptive types, through teaching a detailed lesson about sexual anatomy, and through consent education”
If we are to combat these attitudes, we must do so before third-level. Firstly, because not everyone chooses to attend third-level education, and secondly because waiting until students are 18 or 19 years old is simply too late. Sexual education classes in secondary schools must incorporate thorough and all-inclusive consent education. This must include references to both heterosexual and homosexual sex (gay men are twice as likely to be raped as straight men, and queer people of any gender are two times less likely to report sexual assault, according to the Rape Crisis Network Ireland). Most importantly, sexual consent education should not take place during religion class, as is the case in many secondary schools up and down this country. Although upwards of 80% of Irish primary schools have Catholic patrons, that is not the case for secondary schools, which are far more likely to be non-denominational. Thus, sexual education should be taught as a separate subject altogether; one that does not frame its teachings through a religious lens. Teenagers in this country, whether or not their parents or guardians agree, are having sex. The best and most efficient way to protect young people is not to have them label parts of the male and female genital diagrams. Educators in Ireland must teach young people how to stay safe during sex through lessons on different contraceptive types, through teaching a detailed lesson about sexual anatomy, and through consent education. Young people, particularly young men, must learn how to ask for consent and how to treat their partner with the utmost respect possible.
It can even be argued that these lessons must be taught in primary schools. Indeed, many schools do teach pupils about consent. I remember watching video tapes in my own primary school about how to say no if a friend, teacher, or stranger touches you in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable. These videos, shown to my class in the mid-2000s, involved child-friendly characters who taught us about how to stand your ground and reserve your right to personal privacy. These lessons are the groundwork upon which sexual consent education in secondary schools must be built.
To ensure meaningful societal change, the standard of sex education in our primary and post-primary schools must improve. In sixth class, when my year was being taught about how puberty would affect our bodies, all the boys in my class were allowed to go outside and play basketball when the lesson on menstruation began. In third year, my religion teacher spent one lesson on sexual anatomy and then moved swiftly back to studying bible verses and holy texts. These are the aspects of sex education in Ireland that must change immediately, alongside mandatory and thorough consent education.