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24th Aug 2021

One in five boys ‘neutral’ on consent being needed before sex – and that’s a real problem

Sarah McKenna Barry

When it comes to issues like consent, there is no room to be neutral.

A new study from NUI Galway’s Active* Consent programme has found that one in five secondary school boys are ‘neutral’ on the issue of consent being a requirement for sexual activity.

The programme surveyed 613 post-primary students, and found that 93% of girls and 79% of boys believe that consent is always required for sexual activity.

18% of boys and 6% of girls said that they were ‘neutral’ on the issue while 3% of boys and 1% of girls disagreed that consent is always required.

Additionally, 62% of those surveyed agreed that sexual consent must be verbal.

The programme’s co-lead Dr Pádraig MacNeela said that the group had some concerns over the implications of the results.

Dr MacNeela said that his team is “worried” about the “gendered expectations” surrounding consent, as well as what appears to be a “big reliance on non-verbal cues”.

He said that he hopes the results of the study will provide a sense of direction to the rollout of future sexual consent education by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

Indeed, the results of the survey are concerning, and point to the need for a robust educational programme on sexual consent to be delivered to every secondary school in Ireland. The fact of the matter is that non-consensual sexual activity is harmful, dangerous and illegal. There is no room for neutrality – let alone disagreement – on the issue.

Moreover, there is strong evidence to suggest that consent-centric sexual education is highly effective in improving students’ understanding of the issue. For instance, Dr MacNella said that students who enroll in their Active* Consent Programme emerge with a better understanding of consent.

The programme sees students take consent workshops, but it also involves parental webinars and teacher training.

The Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon spoke about the impact consent-based sex education can have.

He said: “The Active* Consent programme indicates that we are making progress in confronting what is not only a complicated issue, but an extremely important one for developing positive relationships and reducing sexual harassment.

“The programme will equip secondary school students with self-confidence to speak up if there is something happening that they are not comfortable with.”

However, he added that there is still “a long way to go”.