Opinion: it's not enough just to have "The Talk" or leave everything to teachers who may lack training in what is a specialist subject with unique challenges

As someone whose research area focusses on sexual behaviour and the communication of consent, I followed the Belfast rape trial closely. It has reiterated for me how tenuous the grasp on understanding consent really is from a behavioural perspective, particularly amongst emerging adults aged between 18 and 29. It has further reiterated my view that education in consent is required at second level as a matter of urgency. 

I co-facilitate a sexual health module, being piloted with TY students at the alma-mater of my colleague, Richie Sadlier. This work has strengthened my assertion that our existing approach to sex education in this country is obsolete, inadequate and fails to meet the needs of young people.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 review and inevitable change that goes beyond enhancing what exists.

Ours is a six week module and we conduct a pre-module survey on week one. 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 what are 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.

They want to understand what consent means in reality and how they can communicate it in relationships

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. 

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.

From RTÉ Radio One's Ray D'Arcy Show, Elaine Byrnes talks about teaching sex education In secondary schools

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 and females as passive.

They want to understand what consent means in reality and how they can communicate it in relationships. For me, it also involves translating 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 healthy and mutually satisfying relationships regardless of gender, sexual orientation or identity.

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

"In Norway and Finland, children learn through both school and home that sex and sexuality are healthy and normative components of the human experience"

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.

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 a Geography, History or English teacher to effectively "moonlight" as a sexual health educator.

The very real benefits of a comprehensive, interactive, peer-led programme are currently only available to one year in one, single gender school

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: 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 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.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ