A Guide To Failing Sexually Abused Children

Hazel Aged 9
Me, aged 9. I’d already been a victim of sexual abuse for 7 years when this photograph was taken.

 

CW: Child Sexual Abuse, Rape, Incompetence
Help:  https://www.rapecrisishelp.ie/find-a-service/
https://www.samaritans.org/ireland/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
https://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/need-help-now/

Yesterday, Sarah McInerney wrote a piece in The Times about my late friend, Shane Griffin, and how he was let down by a number of systems in Ireland: The Eastern Health Board, the HSE, TUSLA, and the judiciary, to name a few.

It was a lovely tribute to a lovely man and it mentioned how the abuse children suffer is compounded by the neglect they (we) are then subjected to by the very institutions that are supposed to mind them (us). The problem I have with the piece is not the piece itself,  but the fact that it tells us nothing new, and it amounts to nothing more than a bit of hand-wringing, and an invitation (which was taken up by many on Twitter) to have a big, online, hand-wringing fest.

We have known for years that children who are sexually abused in Ireland have their abuse compounded by the further abuse and neglect of those who are supposed to help us. The Journal has been reporting on this for years – just have a look at this and this and this and this and this  : All pieces giving details about children who were sexually abused, and how their suffering was compounded by government agencies, individual social workers, doctors, psychologists etc. who did nothing and who were promoted for their lack of action. Our government, our government agencies, and individual social workersdoctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who work for those agencies are complicit in the abuse, neglect and suicides of people in this country. No one is held accountable, and victims struggle to survive in a country that doesn’t support us.

For example, if (God forbid) your ten-year-old child were sexually assaulted and you went to get help for them. This is what would happen:

  1. You would phone somewhere like CARI, St. Clare’s Unit, or St. Louise’s Unit, or your local social worker, begging for help.
  2. You would not receive help.
  3. The service / social worker you contacted would, in turn, contact TUSLA and report the information. (Note: If this isn’t done online – bearing in mind that only 20% of HSE workers have access to the Internet – the documents will be returned. Estimates vary on how long this will take.)
  4. TUSLA would put your child on a waiting list to be assessed. This waiting list is currently years long.
  5. A social worker from TUSLA would interview your child and decide whether or not they were lying about the abuse. They call this determining whether or not the allegations are ‘founded’ or ‘unfounded’. (More about this below).
  6. If they decide that your child is not a liar, your child will be referred to CARI to be put on their waiting list for help.
  7. If you wanted to access services through the HSE, you would have to involve the Gardaí, as well. St. Clare’s and St. Louise’s Units will not put you on their waiting lists unless you have done so.

Don’t forget that, for the years you’re waiting for help, you’ll have been dealing with a child whose mental health is suffering, you’ll have been grappling with your own pain and feelings of guilt, fear, and your mental health will also be suffering. Your child may be suicidal. Your child may be self-harming. Your other children, and your partner / spouse will also be suffering in a similar way.

If the abuse was perpetrated by a member of your family, the mental anguish will be compounded. There will be no help or support for your abused child, you, or your family members unless you know how to find a competent therapist and pay for therapy yourself.  Good luck with that.

Founded / Unfounded

Whether or not your child gets help depends on whether or not a social worker in TUSLA says they’re allowed to access this help (such as it is). How do they do this? Well, the truth is that nobody knows. Social Workers in Ireland receive no training in how to determine the veracity of a claim of abuse. Nor or they trained in how to treat abuse victims or victims of trauma. (That is changing, however, as Dr Joe Mooney has just introduced a module in UCD for those studying there.)

I’m not being at all flippant when I say that they may as well just flip a coin to decide whether or not a child’s allegations are taken seriously. If you think I’m joking, have a look at the PQs (Parliamentary Questions) 445 – 447 asked by Róisín Shorthall at the end of 2018 and the Minister’s response.

Just today (January 13th, 2020), I got word from a friend – I’ll call her Anna, though that’s not her real name – who contacted TUSLA in 2010 to report abuse she had suffered when she was a child. Make no mistake, this is a brave thing to do. Anna was raped 3-4 times a week, from the age of 14 until she was 17. She is aware that she is not the only person this rapist raped. One other woman has had conversations with Anna about being raped by this man, too, but she’s afraid to go to the Gardaí. Of course, he’s an upstanding member of his local community in Wicklow, so when he was asked – more than eight years after the abuse was reported – if the allegations were untrue, he denied it.

And that was that.

Anna’s mental and physical health are suffering because of the damage this man did to her, which has been compounded by services which are supposed to put ‘Children First’. Anna no longer lives in Ireland because she can’t bear to live in a country that cares so little for raped children. I cannot say I blame her.

Getting Personal

I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t personal. Because it is personal. I am one of the children who was let down by the system. I have encountered nothing but obstacles from every institution, service and individual – with the notable exception of one social worker who alerted me to the fact that a file on me existed. This she did, almost as an aside at the end of a conversation in 2010. It took me two years of constant requests before I was given access to my (heavily redacted) files.

This letter refers to a case conference that took place in November 1988. I was, at this time, 15 years and two months old.

Case Conference Nov 1988 croppedI think it’s worth noting that I never, ever met a single one of the people present at that ‘case conference’ – except for Imelda Ryan.

This is borne out, in part by this (heavily redacted) letter from Rosemary Cooke, who was at the meeting referred to in the correspondence above:

I Have Never Had Contact With Hazel

At the same time, she declares herself the key worker in my ‘case’.

I remain the key worker

And, as you can see from the top line, she asserts that there is ‘little social work intervention possible.’ This woman is still in practice, by the way, and has added the role of ‘Mediator’ to her suite of offerings.

It would actually be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

Let me draw your attention to lines 21, 22, 23, and 24 of the first document. Please bear in mind that everyone at that meeting knew I had been sexually abused by my elder brothers, and was being sexually abused by my father. It was further accepted that the younger children in the house were also at risk of being / were being abused.

But, as you can also see, my mammy didn’t want my daddy to leave the house. So no one interfered. Fifteen-year-old me is referred to as being ‘very disturbed’, ‘not liking my father’ and wanting him ‘out of the house’. It is absurd that this is even noteworthy – or that it is noteworthy, but no further explanation is required. ‘Dr’ Ryan suspects this is a plot on my part. Imagine being 15 and wanting a rapist out of your family home in order to protect yourself and the other children in the family! Clearly quite the little plotter. I was the only person prepared to do anything to address the situation. That should not have been my job. Please also note that I am vilified for disclosing that I was suicidal (line 24). Please also note that, even though the Gardaí were referred to – though I still have no idea how they were expected to ‘control the family’ – they were never contacted by anyone about this abuse until I knocked into my local station when I was 18.

But let me go back to the ‘psychiatrist’ involved – the woman who was supposed to have my welfare at heart. Bear in mind, I was between the ages of 14 and 16 when I was attending St Louise’s Unit. Bear in mind that it was confirmed I was being sexually abused (or, in today’s parlance, my allegations were ‘founded’) . Yet, here is a sample of things that she said about this very scared, very vulnerable teenager:

‘Hazel is “seeking attention”, and has on more than one occasion, cut her wrists’. (Letter dated (05.12.1989). Could you imagine the audacity of a suicidal teenager trying to kill herself. Clearly, still plotting!

Perhaps even more disturbing, however is this gem:

Actually, it's called rape

I’m particularly disturbed by the use of the term ‘sexual intercourse’. Even in the 1980s, ‘sexual intercourse’ with a child was called rape. I would expect a professional, in a letter to other professionals, to use correct terminology. Maybe I expect too much.

I have reams of documents recovered from the HSE and St. Louise’s Unit, but I won’t bore you by reproducing them all here – I think you get the gist.

Of course, I am the first to admit that I am no spring chicken and these documents date from the late 1980s and early 1990s. BUT the system is still the same – actually, you could even argue that it’s a bit worse because ‘self-referrals’ like mine was, are no longer accepted by these units. Imelda Ryan was the director of this unit until a few years ago (2016 if my memory serves me correctly) when she retired. The culture that she inculcated is still very much alive and well in the Unit. In fact, this disdain for victims is evident in almost every single service that is meant to care for us.

The problem is the system, and the culture that supports it. It would not be easy to overhaul the system: There would be huge resistance, and we’d have to change the culture in which we live and operate. But that’s not really the Irish way, is it? We’ll continue, instead, to wring our hands with bone-crunching intensity and cry at the funerals of our friends. Friends whose deaths were entirely preventable if only we had competent people in positions of power. Or even people who cared.

Power

Related image

It’s that time of the year again – I need to choose my word. Now, I like to think that I generally choose my words wisely. I understand the power of words, and I try hard to select words that reflect, and convey, my meaning.

Since January, 2016, I have eschewed New Year’s Resolutions in favour of a single word to guide my intentions and my actions for the coming years. A few hours ago, I was on the phone to my friend Katie and I told her that this year was going to be defined by ‘Attack’. I explained that I was a bit fed up of being a ‘soft’ feminist. I was a bit fed up of being ‘gentle’ in my engagements with men. I’m learning to get a bit more obstreperous, but finding I’m not consistent with my obstreperousness. The conditioning runs deep.

So, I explained to Katie that, when I was using the word ‘attack’, I meant ‘dive in with enthusiasm’ rather than ‘aggressively assail’ or to deliberately injure. She understood. I admitted to having been influenced by Mona Eltahawy and her entreaty to stop being ‘nice’.

‘Attack’ I decided, was a good word to guide me through 2020. But. It didn’t really sit right. It sat ‘okay’, but not ‘perfectly’. I was happy enough to go with it. When I sat down to write this post, however, ‘Attack’ was no longer good enough. ‘Power’ sprang to mind.

So I’m running with it. I don’t want to be empowered in 2020 – I have power, I want to use it. My intention for 2020 is to prevent other people from blocking my power. My intention for 2020 is to ensure that I use my power fearlessly. My intention for 2020 is to use my power ferociously. My intention for 2020 is to use my power to attack.

In Between Days

InBetweenDaysTeaserLrg

(This is an update of a post I first wrote on 29.12.2017)

There have been many thoughtful blog posts, and posts on social media recently for those of us who do not have family, and for whom Christmas is not a pleasant, or a happy time. For those of us for whom abuse was a part of our every day experiences of childhood, with no days off for Christmas – or even for whom Christmas made the abuse worse – Christmas is a time we’d rather avoid.

All that said, however, many of us who have fraught relationships with toxic or dangerous families, or for whom Christmas is tinged with grief, have wonderful friends. These wonderful, thoughtful, friends often remember us, and invite us to join with them on December 25th, and 26th. Then we find ourselves, on the 28th, or so, alone with our thoughts. If we’re lucky, we will have plans for New Year’s Eve. But there are the days between Xmas day and NYE that can be even more difficult than the days of ‘celebration’ themselves. The week that lots of other people humourously refer to as ‘the lost week’ where they don’t know what day it is, and there’s still mountains of festive food knocking about can be really difficult for those of us who haven’t felt we have much to celebrate.

It’s a week for concerted self-care. For this In-between Week, I have a list of things that you can pick and choose from to make yourself feel better.

  1. Get off social media for  24 hours (be sure to post in advance that you’re going to do this, so people don’t worry for your safety!). I love social media, but there’s a lot going on there at the moment that might make you feel more alone.
  2. Join a park run. You don’t have to actually, run, but it can be good for you to feel your body, and feel yourself in it. Park runs are fun, free, and you don’t need to register. Just turn up. Bring a friend, if you think it’ll make it easier, or look forward to making new ones – these Park Runners are a friendly bunch!
  3. Practice some self-appreciation. See yourself as a container for receiving good, and fill that container! By ‘appreciation’, I don’t mean ‘value’. Trying to value yourself often results in little more than either feeling squeamish, or like you’re trying to puff up your ego. Honest appreciation for what is present and true will boost your confidence in a powerful and authentic way. Honest appreciation is specific, both in what it is appreciating, and how it words that appreciation. Remember, appreciation is a gift you receive into your heart.
  4. Paint. Even if you don’t, do.
  5. Put some thought into buying a beautiful gift for someone – something you know they’d love, but would never get for themselves. Make an effort to get them something that is thoughtful, and lets them know how highly you think of them.
    If you don’t fancy braving the crowds in the sales, do the shopping online. In this exercise, though, that ‘someone’ is you.
  6. Plant something. Tend it, and look forward to it blooming. Give it what it needs, when it needs it. If you don’t  know how to grow things, read up, or ask a green-thumbed friend. Treat it the way you should have been treated.
  7. Every time your brain presents you with memories that you don’t need, thank them for showing up, but tell them it’s time to go.
  8. Make sandwiches, or buy biscuits and / or chocolate, and drop them into a soup run. There are several organised throughout the week, and they are always grateful to receive donations.
  9. Download Borrowbox, and check out an audiobook. This app works even when the library is closed. There is something lovely, and nourishing about having a book read to you. You are worth the time an effort the performer went to, to make it sound so good.
  10. Make a list of the films that are the celluloid version of comfort food to you. Watch them.
  11. Read some contemporary poetry, or get on YouTube and enjoy some spoken-word artists.
  12. Have a guilt-free duvet day.
  13. Print off some kids’ colouring pages from the Internet (unless you have a colouring book to hand) and colour them in. Don’t worry about the lines. Just enjoy yourself.
  14. Change the linen on your bed.
  15. Go through your wardrobe, chuck out anything that doesn’t fit / you don’t like / you haven’t worn for at least three months. Remind yourself of what’s in there that you actually like, and that you know looks well on you.

16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (Day 10)

Image result for controlling behaviour

Content warning: Coercive Control, Intimate Partner Abuse

It’s Day 10 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and I’m reminded of the SAFE Ireland Conference I attended last year: That conference brought home to me how the violence and abuse I endured when I was married had affected me more than I’d realised. It was listening to other women and their stories that finally brought home to me how much damage had been inflicted on me by my exes.

I’d been single since the second week of August, 2003 (two days after I found out I was expecting my second child). For the most part, I’ve been very happy to be single. I live a full life, enjoy my children, have wonderful friends and am always busy.  Every now and again, though, I think it might be quite nice to have someone who regularly accompanies me to events, who can hold a conversation, who is blessed with intelligence, and who might be a contender for romantic partner. When I get into one of these moods, I end up on one or other of the (frankly, horrendous) dating apps. I rarely stay very long, but the last time I peeked over that particular parapet, I was pleasantly surprised.

At this juncture, I want to tell you that I thought long and hard about publishing this post: I felt that, having been through what I’ve been through, and knowing what I know, I am the last person who would end up in yet another abusive relationship. My reluctance to share this was multifaceted:

I’m ashamed.

I’m ashamed that – given how much I research, speak, and write about, abuse – I didn’t see it until it was too late. I’m ashamed that I managed to ignore the signs – or that I didn’t see the signs in the first place. I’m ashamed that I acted in exactly the same way as so many other women in abusive situations do. Not because I think I’m in any way better than they are – either in the superior, or the recovered sense – but because I thought I’d learnt that lesson already. I thought I’d figured out how to stand up for myself in situations where there was even a whiff of nastiness. I was wrong.

As well as that, my pride is squirming slightly. I am writing in full knowledge that there are those who will read this and gloat. I know there are those who will read this and bloat with puffed-up delight that I have fallen foul of yet another man. There are those who will gleefully share this post and rejoice at the fact that I have been involved (again) with a man who has scant respect for me (or, come to think of it, women in general).

I’m also feeling a bit dim. I didn’t spot the coercive control that Saradhi subjected meto for what it was. I could kick myself. My marriages had been so dreadful – my life had been in danger on more than one occasion – that I thought anything less than the overt abuse (verbal, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and others) I’d been subjected to in those relationships wasn’t really abuse. I was wrong.

More than these, however, I am aware that every time I write, or speak, about my own experiences, I speak directly to other women who have experienced similar. I speak directly to women who felt their own shame; experienced their own bruised pride; questioned their own intelligence; blamed themselves for their own abuse. I reminded myself that every time I open up – other women open up to me. And that is why I do this – because abuse thrives on secrecy and abuse thrives on keeping the victim shamed, and abuse thrives on the silence of the abused. Knowledge is power, and the sharing of knowledge empowers those with whom it lands.

To give a very specific example of what I mean when I write ‘coercive control’:

Saradhi said he was very pleased that I was pursuing my PhD. He said he was very proud that I was working on such an important project. He said he was aware that I needed the time and space to work. He said that he understood it was the most valuable thing – apart from parenting my girls – that I was doing.

That’s what he said. 

I know enough, though, to know that what a man says is not nearly as important as what he does. What he did was interfere with my study time as much as he could – and he always presented his demands, expectations, and manipulations as perfectly reasonable, in some cases as downright loving, so it was hard to argue with him.

I am quite the night owl, and I enjoy reading and writing late at night. He, however, was not a night owl – especially not during the working week. That was fine with me – I was quite happy for him to go to bed before me.
‘But I can’t sleep without you,’ he would whine.
‘You slept perfectly well without me for nearly 40 years,’ I reasoned.
‘Yes, but now I know you’re there, so I don’t want to have to go to sleep without you. I’d miss you too much. I couldn’t sleep if you weren’t there.’

I thought about this, and decided I could manage a compromise – I’d go to bed at the same time as him, and just read in bed. But he was having none of that.
‘I can’t sleep if there’s any light in the room,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I have blackout curtains.’
‘Can you wear a sleepmask?’ I asked.
‘No. That wouldn’t work. They’re never dark enough.’
‘They are if you get a decent one. I’ll get you a proper one.’
‘No.’

Proffering my next solution, I agreed to go to bed at the same time as him, I agreed not to read while he was in bed, but said I’d get up early in the morning and get a few hours’ work done then. That, however, wasn’t acceptable to him, either.
‘I can’t sleep at all if you’re not there. If you get up, I won’t be able to sleep on.’
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to suggest that he didn’t necessarily deserve more sleep than I did.

When I was home and trying to work, he would constantly interrupt me – and then berate me if I displayed irritation. I explained that my research involves getting into a particular ‘zone’ and working there. I need to engage my brain in order to make sense of what I’m reading, to make connections across literatures, disciplines, my own research, and my own lived experience. Then, I need to figure out how to make sense of all of those resources, and write that down in a comprehensive manner. He had no understanding of this –
‘That’s just too far beyond what I’ve studied,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never done anything like that.’
As if, because he hadn’t done it, it wasn’t valid. I was less and less able to do what I needed to do with him around.

On a few occasions, I stated that I had a particular, specific piece of work to do and needed a specific period of time in which to get it done. After agreeing that I would have the time – uninterrupted – to do what I needed to do, he broke that agreement every single time. He was doing something to keep himself out of my hair – but would suddenly need my help. Even if I explained that I was busy, he would assert that what he was doing was for my benefit (or for our benefit), and I needed to muck in.
‘It’ll only take ten minutes,’ he said to me one time, when he knew I was up against a hard deadline.
Two and a half hours later, the job was finally finished, and I was released from my obligation.

So – I had to go to bed at the same as he, and I wasn’t allowed to read or write in bed. I wasn’t allowed to get up early. I wasn’t allowed to carve out time for myself at all if he was in the same physical space as I was. If we were in the same building, he demanded every drop of my time, my energy, and my attention. I literally couldn’t expect to go to the bathroom on my own. Expectations of such privacy were called out by him as indicative of my inability or unwillingness to ‘share myself’ and ‘to be intimate’. I shouldn’t, he told me, ‘be so shy as to want to hide anything from him’. (This was also why he used to seek out my old journals, correspondence, and even notes from my kids to read and pass judgement on – in spite of my repeatedly telling him that unless something was addressed to him, or given to him, he was not allowed to read it.)

To deny any part of myself that he wanted would, he told me, be ‘just selfish’. And we all know that women are trained – from birth – not to be selfish. We are trained to be selfless, giving, accommodating, generous, self-sacrificing. It is expected of us. I should have remembered that. I should have remembered that the first time I felt uncomfortable. But, here’s the thing, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt uncomfortable. What I’ve realised since, however, is that that doesn’t matter. Why I felt uncomfortable was not nearly as important as the fact that I did. I didn’t need to qualify, or quantify, my levels of discomfort. As someone once said to me ‘If it feels wrong, it is wrong’.

While I didn’t remember it in my most recent relationship, I will remind myself that ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is enough. ‘That makes me uncomfortable’ is enough. If someone wants more details it is enough to say ‘I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t like it.’ Anyone who presses for more, can just jog on.

I have been silenced and censored before and, falling prey to the strictures of the societies I have lived in, I have even silenced and censored myself.  On occasion when I knew I couldn’t explain, or articulate what I needed to say, I have said nothing – feeling that unless I could produce hundreds of words arguing my position, or unpacking my feelings, they weren’t valid, and didn’t deserve to have life breathed into them.

What I didn’t quite realise when I was living through it was that this jealous demand for every ounce of me, and this intrusion on my precious time was a form of coercive control. I had come across coercive control before, but it was in conjunction with other types of abuse – so I didn’t recognise it this time. I’ll recognise it for what it is the next time, though! (Even as I fervently hope that there isn’t a next time).

 

Teaching Empathy

Image result for empathy"

I’m hearing a lot these days about how we need to start ‘teaching empathy’ in our schools. How, if only people learned how to be empathetic, our society would be a better place to live. I agree. What I don’t agree with, however, is the notion that empathy can be taught in school as a distinct, and designated, part of the curriculum. What we really need is a change in our culture.

We don’t have to start teaching empathy – we have to stop teaching indifference and disdain. That lesson cannot be taught just by teachers in formal educational settings. It needs to be taught to children by everyone around them from the day they are born. We need a cultural shift that understand, demands, expects, and rewards, kindness. I don’t believe it can be taught merely as a set of classroom lessons – though, for sure, it can be reinforced through fun exercises, role-plays etc. – I believe it needs to be modeled by showing children what empathy looks like.

Part of empathy is good manners, and children learn this best by having it modeled for them. To teach my children how to be be polite, I modeled it for them. Rather than the performative ‘Say thank you!’ (which I believe parents and carers say to show other adults how good they are at ‘teaching manners’), I said ‘thank you’ at the appropriate times when my children were little. Like all children, mine were eager to emulate the behaviour modeled for them. So they quickly learned – without having to told – when to say ‘thank you’ as well as ‘please’, ‘may I?’, ‘sorry’ etc. and how to behave in a way that was considerate towards others.

We need to realise that most people are empathetic – some more than others, of course – and we have to nurture and nourish that. We have to model it. At the moment, we don’t: We model bullying, disrespect, unkindness, and disdain. These traits and practices are what we reward – and that is why our levels of bullying, sexual assault, and harassment are epidemic. It’s why our populations are suffering mental ill-health in such large numbers, and why we have so many people self-harming, attempting, and dying by, suicide. It’s why conversations about consent and male entitlement are suddenly ‘fashionable’ in media at the moment.

I would argue that unkindness and lack of empathy is what we’re teaching our children – because our default is to be empathetic. We are born that way – it’s our instinctive, default position because it’s part of how we connect with other people, and as human beings, we crave, and seek, nothing more than connection with others. It’s not what we need to learn, it’s what we need to unlearn, that we should focus on.

Narcissistic Mothers

Image result for narcissistic mother"

Yesterday, I spoke with PJ Coogan, on Cork’s Opinion Line about what it’s like to be the daughter of a narcissistic mother. You can listen back (from 12.00) here.

Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother is hugely damaging; not least because our society tells us that a mother’s love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never-ending. When your mother is a narcissist, however, you know that to be untrue, but you can’t articulate it because you feel strongly (and, usually, correctly) that you won’t be believed. You will be treated as though there is something wrong with you because your mother doesn’t love you – but the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with you but plenty wrong with her.

If any of this resonates with you, please feel free to get in touch.

RSE In Irish Schools

 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been aware that my social media was peppered with reminders to read, and comment on, the proposals for the next version of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Irish schools. The NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessments) offered ‘stake holders’ and members of the public – in other words everyone – a chance to make suggestions and submissions on the draft report.

Like a good citizen who has an interest – personally and professionally – with how sex and relationships are taught in schools, I cast a cold eye over the document. It’s neither a long, nor a difficult, read; the meat and potatoes of it is just 80 pages, and the language is very accessible. At the outset, the document informs us that  the Minister for Education and Skills asked that the following be considered:

RSE
So far, so good. For too long, our non-heteronormative populations have been ignored in the arena of sex and relationship learning and teaching in Ireland. All the issues listed in the document are ones which must be addressed and I’m delighted to see them getting the attention they deserve.

I’m troubled, though, by so much of what is not mentioned – and I’m not the only one. The other day, I was chatting with Dr Clíona Saidléar, Executive Director of the RCNI, and it turned out we had the same concerns. There were issues we both felt should have been mentioned in the report that weren’t. Unsurprisingly, our lists were similar. Between us, we came up with the following list of what we feel should have been included, but wasn’t:

  • Victim blaming
  • Misogyny
  • Sexual abuse
  • Rape
  • Reporting – how to deal with a report, mandatory reporting etc.
  • Incest

It’s all very well to say we need to talk about consent, but consent is about so much more than consent around sexual touch, or even non-sexual touch. Consent is about how we speak to each other. Asking permission before entering another’s space – whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – should be first nature to us. It should be as much a part of our accepted manners as saying ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘excuse me’.

With regard to developments in contraceptives, I am still shocked and bewildered by the fact that spermicidal jelly isn’t sold in Ireland. It makes me wonder why – is it because every sperm is sacred?! Nor is the Caya diaphragm available here. Again, I had to wonder why. Is it because they are one-size fits all and users can fit them themselves? I know many survivors of sexual assault would much prefer a non-hormonal contraceptive that they can fit and use without the interference of anyone else.

Healthy positive sexual expression and relationships are wonderful aims, but talking about them, and telling school-aged children that they’re a good idea isn’t going to be productive. They need to be modelled. Who is doing – or who might do – that for the kids?

Of course, safe use of the Internet, and social media are sensible, logical, necessary, and important matters to address. The problem in many households is that the adults are unaware of what their young people are accessing, how to protect their children from what – and who – they might encounter online, and how to have open, honest conversations about the Internet. Organisations like Zeeko – which offer talks in schools – can help with awareness, and navigation, of the http://www.  Many of the responses to the ‘Internet Question’ are pornography-focused but there is so much more than porn on the internet, and there’s a lot of good there (here!), too.

Our non-hetero folks deserve to be recognised – but not fetishized, and I remain hopeful that the Department will engage suitably qualified members of these communities to inform and advise on curricula content.

As I mentioned earlier, though, my biggest concern is not what’s included in, but what’s been omitted from, the discussion.  We can’t have a fully-informed, useful, educative, progressive conversation about relationships and sex if we don’t address the things that will be relevant to everyone: victim blaming, and misogyny – and things that will be relevant to more than one in four of our student population; sexual abuse, rape and incest. Teachers (and, indeed, other staff members) will need to be aware of how to handle disclosure. They will also need to know their obligations under mandatory reporting legislation. There also needs to be an awareness that at least one in four of our teachers will, themselves, have histories of abuse – and may, therefore, find discussions of same, and disclosure, very difficult.

I get the feeling that this invitation to discuss the RSE curriculum is very performative: That it’s an exercise in being seen to be doing the right thing rather than actually figuring out what the right thing is. We’re not taking a long, hard, look at what’s wrong with our current curriculum; at what crucial needs should be addressed, but aren’t. Saying ‘we need to talk about consent’ sounds good, but unless we talk about consent in all areas of our interactions with others – unless we talk about boundaries and feelings – we aren’t really looking at the issue properly. Saying we need to have a ‘national conversation’ about pornography sounds modern and edgy, but it’s meaningless without starting from a place of respect for women – which we don’t have, and which we can’t have in a society as patriarchal and as misogynistic as the one we currently live in.

It’s all very well to talk about ‘having conversations’ and ‘improving curricula’ but if all those conversations and curricula are going to do is enforce the current culture, then they are just exercises in breath- and money-wasting. In order for any improvements we might consider making to actually be made, we first need to change our culture. We need to change our attitudes to victims; we need to acknowledge that most sexual abuse happens within the home. We need to discuss how we treat people – how bullying, manipulation, and coercion aren’t acceptable behaviours. That’s only going to happen if we adults change how we treat others – including (especially) children and model the behaviour we want and expect.  Sex is part of life. Sexual relationships are part of life. If we want our young people to have healthier attitudes towards sex, and their sexual relationships, we need to show them what we mean, not lecture them about what we want them to do.