Lynn Ruane: ‘I felt liberated when I learnt to say no to sex’
Consent workshops are a way to instil in young people the power to just say no
‘If I had my way I would bring consent workshops into secondary schools as well, and instil in our youth only the power of saying ’no’.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
It was 1998. I was 13 years old, Run DMC’s It’s Like That was No 1 in the charts, and I had just swapped the local kiddies disco for the bed of an older boy.
I didn’t have control of much in my life, but the one thing I did have I had just given away – my virginity.
From that point onwards, sex was an activity that I felt was expected of me. On every occasion my heart and head would scream no, but I didn’t know how to stop it. I would give my consent based on my inability to speak out.
On many occasions I engaged in sex with boys without really wanting to, apart from those relationships where I conceived my daughters.
On many of those occasions I was way too intoxicated to even remember the encounter.
Growing up in a housing estate meant that teenage boys knew you were sexually active, and asked you out with this in mind.
I was too powerless and naive to see that I was being used by the opposite sex. This didn’t stop in my teens and continued until well into my 20s.
Then, in my mid-20s, I abstained from sex for three years. In that time I reclaimed my body, and felt liberated for the first time when I learned to say no.
I did not know how to not give consent. I do not think I am alone in this.
Podcast: Lynn Ruane on Consent
Damaging expectationsSome may say that was all down to me and my decisions, although I would disagree.
The culture of sex among young people brings with it an expectation that is damaging to our youth.
Last month the Trinity College Students’ Union passed a motion to support the introduction of mandatory workshops for incoming first- years.
If I had my way I would bring consent workshops into secondary schools as well, and instil in our youth only the power of saying “no”.
The question of consent is not just about rape. It is about being mindful when a person is too drunk or vulnerable to make a clear decision on engaging in any sort of sexual contact.
It’s about respecting the other person and being aware with how comfortable they are with engaging in any form of sexual contact.
We need to move away from the idea that sexual consent consists merely of penetrative sex but also includes unwanted sexual advances. I have lost count of the times I have been groped in bars over the years.
This is unwanted sexual contact that I most defiantly did not consent too.
First-year university students are often experiencing a sense of responsibility and freedom for the first time.
Some will transition into this new space at ease; others will struggle to find their place in this new environment.
A large majority of first-years are only entering adulthood and may not have been sexually active.
Sexually empoweredWe in the Trinity College Students’ Union want to ensure that people of any gender and age are sexually empowered and safe both inside and outside the university.
The objective of these workshops is not to shut down debate, but to provide the space to begin a conversation about sex and sexual contact and how we can keep each other and ourselves safe.
It’s hugely important for any person to feel empowered to only have sex when they are ready – and when they want to.
We can’t forget the frightening statistics that in 2015 the Dublin Rape Crises Centre received nearly 10,000 calls for counselling or support and a further 8,007 to schedule a face-to-face appointment.
The students’ union ran a survey, to which 1,038 students responded. Of those 25.2 per cent of women and 4.5 per cent of men said that they had had a non-consensual sexual experience.
We as a society should address this proactively, and the motion brought forward by TCD students is a first step.
This is not about pointing the finger at men – it is not only men who overstep the boundaries when it comes to consent.
I for one wish I could have had the space to discuss sexual consent when I was younger.
Lynn Ruane is president of the Trinity College Students’ Union