Why Do We Find Consent So Hard?  

Outdated notions mean we tend to visualise force, violence and those dark alleyways...

Recent research from Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s We-Consent campaign told us that almost half (47%) of those surveyed reported a better understanding of consent than they held 12 months ago. This is encouraging and shows us that the Irish public do have the appetite and understanding to engage with this issue. However, it also shows us that there is still a way to go until all people understand the concept and practice of consent.

Historically, Ireland has been a place where people struggle to talk openly about anything related to sex. To this day, most people will be sent diving behind the couch rather than endure watching a sex scene on TV with family members. For many of us, “The Talk” amounted to a book being passed our way or an awkward one-off chat that was endured with all eyes glued to the floor. Sex Ed was covered by two pages of the biology textbook, or maybe an unruly discussion crammed into another subject’s curriculum.

Thankfully, this is changing. With both secondary and primary curriculums under review and the revised SPHE curriculum already being rolled out, there is a growing focus on age-appropriate education around consent, boundaries and personal space.  It is becoming more and more common to hear parents telling their small children “You don’t have to hug your granny unless you want to” – a sure sign that the values underpinning consent are being introduced from a younger age, equipping children with the permission to consider what they want, to vocalise that and to have it respected.

Sarah Monaghan

However, for those of us who grew up without this vital education, without the language of boundaries or the permission to assert what you want or don’t want, we were left to learn how to navigate the world through social scripts and norms. These spoken and unspoken cultural rules were riddled with stereotypes and myths. We were told that boys will be boys and girls are made of sugar and spice and all that’s nice. We learned through countless films, books and romantic plots that men should be the ones to lead in sexual encounters, to pursue, to initiate, to persuade – and then persuade some more; that women should be passive, small, not cause a fuss no matter how uncomfortable they are, no matter how much they don’t want it. When unexamined, these expectations become heavy pressures for everyone. Men and women, straight or not, are left with stifling and dangerous rules to be abided by even if they don’t fit or feel right.  

Similarly, without real guidance on sexual violence or the actual voices of survivors, we don’t always know what it is. Outdated notions mean we tend to visualise force, violence and those dark alleyways, but maybe not the sexualised comments, the unwanted touch, the sex you felt you had to go along with to avoid days of silent treatment. We are gradually beginning to understand that sexual violence takes many forms, but these pre-conceived ideas leave many victims without the words to identify what happened to them. The likelihood is, if it felt wrong, it was wrong. Many of the callers to the 24-hour National Helpline begin with an apology for wasting our time – an immediate minimising of their experience to being “not that bad” and a self-accusation that they are “making a big deal of it”. But almost inevitably, they are calling the exact right place because what happened to them was not OK and deserves to be heard and recognised as such.

While legal and policy advancements are crucial in this area, there remains the need to re-shape our culture to be one that believes and supports people when they tell us about harm they have experienced. At a societal level we need to open up conversation about sex and relationships and consent wherever we can. Consent is not a big once off conversation, but rather a continual series of chats and check ins which places a mutual emphasis on each other’s happiness and wellbeing. We need to create spaces which are open and non-judgmental and acknowledge that we all have something to learn about consent. Most of all, it is incumbent on all of us to recognise that this is not someone’s else’s problem. Sexual violence is multi-faceted and with over half of women and almost a third of men having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, it is an issue which is close to all of our lives.

It’s time we re-shaped the roles we play in society into ones which value kindness and respect and equality above all else. It’s time we talked and really listened. It’s time we worked together to face any embarrassment and awkwardness for the good of all of us. It’s time we thought of consent as an agreement between people, rather than something you “get” off another person.  It’s time we questioned whether the gender roles we have accepted for so long really serve anyone well. It’s time we recognised that changing our culture is in our hands – and it starts with a chat. It’s time we re-wrote our script.

We-Consent is a project of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre which is proudly supported by Department of Justice, Cuan, Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and Community Foundation Ireland.

To learn more about consent skills, tips and tricks, see the We-Consent website.

For free, confidential & non-judgmental support & advice, call the 24hr National Helpline 1800 77 88 88

Words by Sarah Monaghan, We-Consent Project Manager