When we glance back at years past there is always a moment that defines them in the public consciousness. A moment that ‘convulsed’ the country, and that was often a catalyst for an epic change of direction.
In Ireland, over the past century, many of those moments have been focussed – almost to the point of obsession – on sexuality and reproduction.
As far back as the 1950s it was the mother and child scheme.
But in the 1980s Ann Lovett, Joanne Hayes and the first referendum on abortion focussed the nation’s attention squarely on women’s sexuality and sin.
In the 90s it was clerical sex abuse and divorce.
It’s early in 2018 and already the nation has been utterly thrown by the sordid, sick details of one of the most troubling and thought-provoking court cases ever reported on this island.
Consent is going to be the watchword of 2018, thanks to the bravery of the complainant in the Belfast rape trial.
While all four defendants were found not guilty, it is being acknowledged very widely that there is an immense gulf in understanding of what consent really means between all of us. And it’s not as simple as breaking it down by gender or age. It’s a much more complex division.
While consent has been a hot topic in feminist circles for years now, with Clonakilty woman Louise O’Neill’s book Asking for It getting a huge response, the discussion is only now reaching the people who most need to be a part of it; young men.
Easter weekends all over the country were spent in deep and often very frustrating discussion among friends, family and even workmates about the Ulster case and about the core issue of when and how ‘no means no’.
To my mind the National Women’s Council put it best when, in their statement on the verdict they pointed out that being ‘reckless as to consent’ is something we all need to reconsider.
Not caring or enquiring whether your partner is saying yes wholeheartedly is starting to look a lot like ignoring the word ‘no’, and for a lot of men, that’s going to be an enormous shift in the sand.
Which is why the announcement yesterday by Minister for Education Richard Bruton of a review into sex education with a view to focussing more on teaching consent is welcome.
However, in turn it raises the question of what kids are learning at home.
As the Constitution – which has never been too hot on equality or reproduction – has it, the parents are the primary educators of the child.
And where consent is concerned there are obviously far too many neglecting to have this conversation with their children – of both sexes – in any kind of serious way.
It’s not enough to teach our daughters to ‘respect themselves’ and say no. Sex and respect are not mutually exclusive concepts. There are many situations where they are perfectly compatible and those will not all fit the mould of what our parents and grandparents would have expected.
But there are situations where their ‘no’ will not be respected. There are situations where they may not be able to say no, where they may be drunk, or frozen, or scared.
So as parents of boys we must ensure that our boys know that lack of a yes means no, too.
Unless it’s a fervent yes, it’s a no. Silence is not consent. Submission is not consent. Drunkenness is not consent.
And it’s up to us, as a society, to teach them this.
Yes, teachers have a role to play. After all, children spend a lot of their lives in school. Much of their social and sexual development will take place there. But the biggest influence on any child is what they learn at home.
In the past few weeks I’ve seen calls for etiquette, plastics awareness, politics, cookery and consent to be taught in school. What happened to reading, writing and arithmetic?
Unless we are planning to extend the school day out to 7pm and run school 365 days per year, there is no way in hell teachers will be able to teach these kinds of life skills.
And it’s not their job, anyway. It’s our job to shape the kind of society we want, to ensure that our children’s lives are not filled with the same kind of repression, oppression and shame about sexuality that Ireland has faced, in different ways, for decades.