By Gráinne Carr
Updated / Friday, 12 February 2021 14:38
Consent Matters Ireland is committed to creating a consent culture in Ireland. When we talk about a “consent culture,” we mean an environment where children can learn, grow, and play without fear of bullying, abuse, or assault. We mean an environment where teens feel comfortable and confident in their ability to communicate respectfully and kindly to each other; a society where everyone, from an early age onwards, can notice, value, trust, and communicate their own boundaries, whilst also noticing, listening to, seeing, and fully respecting the boundaries of others. We mean an environment that prioritises mutual respect, safety, and kindness. Who would not want all children to become teens and adults who have age appropriate, positive, nourishing, healthy, and enjoyable relationships?
For this vision to become a reality, some shifts in our current thinking are required. We need to expand our definition of consent. But we also need to recognise that we cannot know whether or not we wish to consent to something before knowing where our own boundaries lie.
Education on how to safely and positively navigate intimate/sexual consent and associated boundaries is, of course, essential to ensure that teenagers are getting the age appropriate, accurate information that they need and want. As the 2019 NCCA Review of Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) has shown, post-primary students often look to their friends, or to the internet, for answers to their RSE related questions when education is not offered at an appropriate time. In fact, a significant proportion of these students said they would never go to a parent, or to a teacher, to ask for RSE related advice. This suggests that we must be proactive to ensure that timely, comprehensive, age appropriate education is prioritised, both at home and in the classroom, to offset the likelihood of friends or the internet being the sources of education.
It’s also important to note that, whilst there is much work being done to ensure there is a uniform approach to teaching RSE in a comprehensive and positive manner in all post-primary schools, there is still a lot more that needs be done in this area. As one 6th year student who participated in an NCAA focus group put it, “there would be public outrage if there was such a disparity of experiences in any other subject.”
Although a standardised approach to consent education must be included in post-primary RSE, such an approach would still be limited if it focuses solely on consent in relation to sexual or intimate relationships. In reality, consent is necessary in so many other interactions and relationships in daily life.
Let’s expand the conversation to discuss consent within the family dynamic, friendships, the workplace, and society as a whole. Let’s also look beyond the RSE framework and explore the benefits of adopting the teaching strategies used to teach subjects like English, Politics, History, and P.E. In the case of learning a new language, for example, the more often you practice the more fluent you become. Similarly, if broader discussions and conversations about consent happen within the family home, at school, and in a variety of other contexts, it makes sense that post-primary school students will be more aware, more understanding, more confident, and more empathic by the time conversations concerning sexual consent arise.
All this talk of consent, though, what about boundaries? A child who knows how to respect their own boundaries, and who also knows they have the right to require others to respect these boundaries, is much more likely to have empathy for others and to respect their boundaries. This must be the starting point, for both boundary awareness education and consent education. How can we consent to something if we don’t know, value, and trust where our boundaries lie in advance? How can we know where our internal “yes,” “no,” or “maybe – let’s negotiate” is?
Any effective boundary education must include, in age appropriate ways, how to notice the types of boundaries we and others have and to understand why we, and they, have them. It must also consider why context is important in the application of boundaries and why boundaries move. It should explore why it can be hard to set boundaries and why it can be difficult to communicate these boundaries to others. And it must be committed to teaching students how to communicate their boundaries confidently and effectively, how to notice and respect other people’s boundaries, and how to deal with others who have negative reactions to their boundaries.
Understanding how to set our own boundaries and how to respect the boundaries of others is both a life skill and a lifelong practice. Therefore, it can and should be taught simply at preschool, included in every year of primary education, and discussed in more nuanced ways through post-primary education. Throughout the learning process, it makes sense to heighten our awareness of our internal “radar,” our central nervous system, and how it adapts from a position of feeling safe to feeling worried or unsure. In other words, by paying attention to the messages our body sends us, and being able to understand ourselves more keenly, we will have greater senses of awareness and empathy when we notice the body language of others.
These are important life lessons. But they are also gifts to give to children, gifts that will support them as they seek out healthy and happy relationships, and gifts that will ultimately support the development of a truly consent and boundary aware society.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.
Gráinne Carr is an experienced Trainer, Facilitator, and Coach, and the creator of Consent Matters Ireland – an organisation whose vision is to make society safer through consent education. A qualified Wheel of Consent Facilitator, Gráinne’s focus is on bringing awareness to the dynamics of consensual agreements, the fundamental importance of boundaries, and the need to develop understanding and confidence in these life skills to create and maintain healthy relationships in intimate, professional, familial, and peer contexts. For further details, see www.consentmattersireland.ie and www.grainnecarr.com