Overhauling relationship and sexuality education

Against the backdrop of myriad celebrity sexual assault scandals, the issue of sexual consent has received an unprecedented and timely level of emphasis. Elaine Byrnes, a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Psychology, NUI Galway provides an assessment of the existing attitudes towards sex education.

A highlight of my week, and welcome distraction from PhD write-up, is co-facilitating 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 This work has strengthened my assertion that our existing approach to sex education in this country is obsolete, inadequate and fails to meet the needs of young people. A cursory review of the the Department of Education and Skills website shows the most recent resources related to Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) date back to 2007.

Ours is a six-week module, and on week one we conduct a pre-module survey. The rationale for this is to give us a baseline for the boys understanding of sex, sexuality and sexual health. Unsurprisingly to us, it is invariably limited. We also ask what are the three topics they would like to see covered during the module. There is remarkable consistency in the most frequently requested topics of healthy relationships, consent and contraception. By a happy coincidence these are the basic themes that run through the module.

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.

Richie and I guide interactive and peer-led activities and discussions related to sexuality. 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. As a sex researcher with a research focus on the communication of consent, 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. Their skewed understanding, informed in part by seemingly relentless media discourse, is that the onus of responsibility is theirs, and theirs alone. Our approach is to instil in the boys the concept that responsibility is mutual and bi-directional. For me, it also involves distilling 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 relationships regardless of gender, sexual orientation or identity, that are healthy and mutually satisfying.

Secondly, from the perspective of parents. While some of the boys recount open communication with their parents on matters related to sex and sexuality, for most (and this is not unique to South County Dublin!), it has been confined to ‘The Talk’. An awkward and uncomfortable experience for all involved. As a facilitator of a module that promotes positive sexuality in young people, I am satisfied if it enables the opening of a line of communication with parents, that previously was not there.

Thirdly, from the perspective of the school that strives to provide a holistic education in the truest sense, there is confidence in – and support for – the delivery of a module that goes far 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.

Based on our experience as facilitators and the feedback we have received for the module, what was at the beginning of our pilot an uncomfortable realisation, has now become a source of frustration for Richie and me. This is that 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 in our country that we have the opportunity to develop sexual competence and protect the sexual health of young people.

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