We Consent: On Ireland’s first national sexual consent campaign

Image Credit: Maria Giulia Molinaro Vitale

Caroline Kelly interviews Sarah Monaghan, the project manager and organiser for We Consent, on the first campaign for sexual consent in Ireland, and how it can benefit students.

A national three-year consent campaign which aims to drive behavioural change and spark conversation about sexual consent was rolled out in late March. We-Consent is a research-based campaign designed to combat the issue of defining sexual consent and how it is given. It is led by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) and is supported by the Department of Justice. 

This is the first ever national campaign on broadening understanding and practice of consent targeted across all age groups and all demographics, in Ireland, and among the first globally. It strives to work with all people and all communities to build lasting change which is rooted in real people’s lives and experiences. As such, We-Consent is more concerned with cultural change, rather than policy or legal change. DRCC undertook research in 2021 and 2022 amongst people in Ireland about their attitudes and behaviours towards sex, sexual relationships & consent.   

DRCC We-Consent project manager, Sarah Monaghan, views these findings optimistically. “The research suggests that moving the conversation towards sexual equality will empower women and men, leaving everyone feeling valued, respected and accepted,” she says. 

Sexual assault is and has been an epidemic on college campuses nationwide. A study conducted in 2020 by the Union of Students in Ireland found that 29% of females, 10% of males, and 28% of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force, or threat of force. Finally, around half of the female and non- binary students said they experienced sexual misconduct inclusive of any non-consensual sexual touching. The comparable figure for males was just over one quarter. 

“moving the conversation towards sexual equality will empower women and men, leaving everyone feeling valued”

Every year, thousands of Irish universities enforce some form of training designed to avert campus sexual assault by educating students on consent: what it is, how to ask for it and under which circumstances it cannot be given. The wisdom goes that if people understood consent, then there would be less sexual violence, and everyone could finally feel some real sense of sexual equality. 

Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich, UCDSU Welfare officer, noted that any initiative on consent will be of benefit to UCD students, especially in conjunction with DRCC, who have provided “so many vital services and expertise on issues of sexual violence.” 

She added: “We have seen how the concentration on consent from groups like Active Consent in University of Galway has impacted UCD students, with all first years now getting a 30 minute consent workshop at programme level. This has made campus a safer place, and I believe We Consent can have a similar impact on our students both in UCD and in wider society.”

“This has made campus a safer place, and I believe We Consent can have a similar impact on our students both in UCD and in wider society”

The UCDSU, as Míde offered, defines consent as “an ongoing, mutual and freely-given agreement to take part in sexual activity (not just sex itself). It applies to all relationships, all genders, and all sexualities and cannot be obtained by coercion, intimidation or by someone without legal capacity to do so. Consent can be revoked at any time before or during a sexual act. If consent is not expressed, then this is not sex - it is assault.”

To be sure, consent is a precursor for ethical sex. But, too often, consent education doesn’t teach us how to understand, and learn from, the sex that comes after we say ‘yes.’ One student noted the pitfalls of determining consent in lawful parameters. She added that because consent education is focused primarily on verbal ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’, “sexually active people are stuck with a woefully limited, legal understanding of what sex is and ought to be, instead of gaining the broader ability to articulate sexual desire in emotional situations.” 

“Of course, an awareness of legality is vital to the conversation, but this can sometimes offer people a limited vocabulary of consent. Some might say this kills the mood, which is truly understandable. Because of this, Ireland is in need of a culture that discusses consent beyond legality, while also prioritising emotionally satisfying sex, too,” she comments. 

“an awareness of legality is vital to the conversation, but this can sometimes offer people a limited vocabulary of consent”

Sarah Monaghan believes this campaign is a positive one, and fits well into the narrative of sex in an evolving Ireland. College students today often become sexually active with too little to guide them — beyond, perhaps, what they’ve drawn from certain social structures. Gender, in binary terms, is one such structure often discussed when it comes to sex education at present; and these uninformed assumptions complicate the conversation. Monaghan adds that “communication and agreement have been made difficult by structural and social inequalities and the teaching of gender norm behaviour for women and men when it comes to sex, relationships, dating and consent.” 

“Men have traditionally been cast as pursuers of sex and women in a gatekeeper role. This is harmful for everyone, and we can do better in shedding these taught norms and instead basing our relationships in equality and communication between all parties as equals,” says Monaghan.

The UCDSU is aware of their role in striving for a culture of consent on campus which seeks to inform students of the various services available to them, ranging from STI tests to counselling to open learning courses. As a whole, UCDSU also fights to ensure the policies and laws in place regarding sexual violence deliver justice for the victims and address the root causes of the issues. Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich comments UCDSU’s efforts already on this matter: “We've done this with the establishment and expansion of the bystander intervention program, the implementation of consent classes at programme level, the introduction of the new sexual misconduct policy, and the establishment of the dignity and respect support service.” She further comments that there is still room for improvement, however, and that “there will always be more to do.” 

For the next three years, We Consent will strive to fill these gaps currently present in sex education, namely with the concept of consent. With hope for the future, Sarah Monaghan comments, “We hope to support everyone in Ireland to learn more about consent and to feel better equipped to have honest and open conversations with partners, friends, colleagues, children (in an age-appropriate way), parents and that everyone will play a role in creating a society that has happier, healthier and safer relationships and sexual encounters.” 

At present, We Consent have already implemented new methods and measures to engage the public. Once a month, they will host monthly workshops in the Fumbally Stables Loft to “open the door to safe chats about consent, culture, activism and much more;” these workshops are also free of charge. 

For booking, please visit:  https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/we-consent-conversation-workshops-tickets-546017271357). They also have a variety of online resources concerning consent and sex education, as well as support for abuse victims, aids on the legal system and information on several subjects (such as masculinity, the impact of trauma, emotional intelligence, and much more); these are all available at https://www.we-consent.ie/resource-hub/.