Why we should teach about consent in primary schools
Training in saying yes and no, whether online or not, is now an essential skill
The average age at which children first access pornography is now 10 years old. It usually happens when the child is doing homework or playing a game on the home computer. The child’s first reaction is often not to run and tell their parents but to hide the fact that they have seen it.
This means that prepubescent children have no one to tell about their sexual experience and often they are not not given a formal opportunity to talk about it until much later in their teens. Parents and other adults are worried that if they speak about porn or sexuality to their children, they are somehow encouraging them to participate in this world of sexuality and there will be a resultant loss of innocence and childhood.
However, children need to know that the adults in their lives are capable of hearing of such things and the only way they can know of this is if they hear the adults talking and discussing consent and porn. This does not mean talking at children but rather talking so that children can say: “You know that thing you are talking about? It happened to me.”
Consent is a similar issue to porn: we are afraid that if we talk about sexual consent at such a young age that we are introducing children to the complicated world of adults. But surely we would like our children to have confidence in giving voice to what is okay or not okay for them? All safety involves speaking clearly and loudly when something is happening that is not acceptable and consent classes teach this.
If we sit back and do nothing, then it is likely that the current unclear and murky situation regarding consent will continue
Consent workshops are positive and fun and can be made age-appropriate for any group. What we need is to create the culture we want our children to grow into and we now have the incentive to do this as a result of the public debate sparked by in the recent high-profile rape trial Belfast involving Irish international rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Both men were found not guilty.
This week the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, triggered a review of the 20-year-old curriculum on relationships and sexuality education. He asked the State’s advisory body on the curriculum to consider updating information on sexual consent at both primary and secondary level.
It is a welcome move. If we sit back and do nothing, then it is likely that the current unclear and murky situation regarding consent will continue.
While schools or clubs can be locations for consent workshops, real change requires that the whole of society get involved in this development and this means that we tackle our fear of speaking about sex and what is appropriate or not for us.
The proliferation of porn has led to unreasonable expectations of sex that have become normalised and if we want our children to be able to tackle and challenge these expectations in their grown-up lives surely we must do this in our lives. If we as adults were prepared to talk about consent and sex, and not fear the repercussions, then we might model confidence for our children.
Of course we are afraid of being thought too inexperienced or prudish, or too brash and demanding, so we often say nothing and hope that we are not rejected by our partners. The one thing we might do as adults for the future sexual relationships of our children is to speak honestly and show that fear is not our primary concern.
We constantly toggle between telling our children to be brave and to be safe, so it must be confusing for young minds to know when each is required. Surely the best thing to do is to encourage children to have the confidence to ask adults if they are confused.
Consent workshops can offer our children the skills to ask and clarify but they also offer training in how to say no; no to unwanted images, no to unwanted touch and no to unwanted attention. Training in saying yes and no, whether to actual touch or to images and social media, is an essential skill in our world and doing so with confidence is the aim.
Consent is not just about responding, it is about being able to ask and wanting to ask what the other person enjoys or wants. This will enhance any relationship or friendship and create characteristics of trustworthiness and empathy in any relationship. This is why we should support age-appropriate consent workshops in primary schools. The age we might consider doing this is 10 to 12 when children are beginning to access porn and need adult support.
If we are supportive of consent in schools and clubs, then we must also model these principles in our own lives so that children are not protecting us from what is happening in their lives.
Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist and writes weekly column in the Irish Times Health+Family section