It's the hot topic word of the moment, being flitted around the media, with differing opinions from many people from different backgrounds. The publication of Louise O Neill's Asking For It has sparked a debate that isn't going away any time soon. The concept should be simple; do both people want sexual contact with each other, and are they of a mental capacity to make such a decision? However, as we all know nothing is ever black and white and it is in the shades of grey where we find our current situation in Ireland.
I was lucky to be one of the students who benefitted from a pilot project run by the HSE between 2003 and 2008 in Co. Wexford, The RESPECT project. It taught students about contraception, sex and relationships, also teaching them about consent, about how it is okay to say no/change your mind, and how important it is at all times to ensure that both parties are happy to continue, whether that be a kiss, full blown sex or anything in between. The programme aimed to educate students aged 13-15, technically under the age of consent (17 in Ireland), about protecting themselves physically and mentally while making their way through life as a teenager and relationships. It aimed to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy by educating teenagers BEFORE they began having these relationships and having sex to ensure any future sex was wanted and safe, and if not, how to refuse and have their refusal recognised. The appeal of the project was that while in a school background, it wasn't predominantly taught by teachers - 4 sessions were taught by a teacher, 4 sessions by a health professional from outside the school, and 4 sessions taught by older students (16-17 year olds) trained in the programme.
The sessions taught by the students (the ones about consent) are the ones I found most relatable. Teenagers are much less likely to take on advice from someone much older, as they mustn't understand what it is like to be a teenager today. Add in the mortification factor; the idea of my teachers about what my boyfriend was asking me to do, or anything sex related would have had me dying inside. With an older student, they get it, they've been (and are) in your shoes, and that helps to break down barriers.
RESPECT taught us to say no to sex if we didn't want it, in a way that wouldn't cause offence or relationship problems (and if it did, well, that person really wasn't very nice to begin with). It ensured that we knew that it wasn't just girls who were pressured into sex, it happens to boys too, and taught us how to remove ourselves from the situation if we were unhappy. It taught us about contraception and the dangers of unprotected sex (a slideshow of STDs is engrained on my retinas FOREVER). It taught us the importance of saying how you feel, if you are unsure how to say no, and to protect yourself by ensuring that both parties are happy to consent to what is going on. Yet this programme is no longer running thanks to lack of financial investment in sex education after the end of the pilot project.
In January 2012, a report examined the process of the project. It declared it a success, but one financially unviable in our current economy. As a result, it's been removed from the schools it was in, not rolled out to others, resulting in patchy sex education being received by students. From discussions with others I'm hearing that it is being rushed over, focusing mostly on not getting pregnant, and in some cases being taught by religion teachers who advocate for celibacy/natural contraceptives only. In addition to this, NONE of the sex education is based around same-sex couples - while implying that statistically more STDs and dangerous casual sex is carried out by those not in heterosexual relationships, we are not educating our young LGBT people on how to protect themselves. Consent is not included in this equation, merely the biological realities, if any.
This isn't an easy topic to manage or something which can be easily remedied. Educating our young people on the concept of consent, of making sure the other person knows what they're doing and is happy to do so - this is an essential need in our education system and it is lacking. An election is coming up, I'm sure there are going to be politicians promising the sun, moon and stars in order to gain your vote - when one comes to my doorstep, the allocation of funds towards furthering this education for our young people will be an important topic of discussion.
I can only hope for change, and try to work towards it in any way that I can.