Consent: A Sporting Perspective

Written By Declan Gleeson.

We’ve become all too familiar with the stories. A man in a position of power, respected and looked up to, and then revelation by a young woman of a despicable act that he has done. Its almost become a trademark for the year. There’s no question that the issue of consent and rape culture has come to the forefront of our social issues, both in Ireland and worldwide. Only now are we beginning to wake up and realise what’s been going on in our cities and indeed, in our schools. The MeToo movement’s rapid growth has shown us that women are tired of the injustices forced upon them, and with all the attention that has come on certain sports stars, we must examine what our young men are being taught in schools and in the dressing-rooms.

If the Belfast trials of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding showed us anything about the culture inside a professional male sports team, its that it is in dire need of education. I’m not saying that all players behave the same way as these men, but it’s clear from the WhatsApp messages that they have a disjointed and disillusioned view of women. This case, and particularly the manner of language used by the accused players, has opened a lot of people’s eyes to a glaring problem in this society: the sexual objectification of women. It remains to be seen if this is an attitude that is picked up as the result of being a top athlete, or a “lad” or whatever they consider themselves, and the idea that they had some sort of privilege. But male culture is almost universally being scrutinised in relation to attitudes towards women, and whilst some men are crying that they “can’t even talk to women” anymore, it’s really quite a simple problem to fix, and it starts with education. Consent is at the heart of the problem and if we really live in a society where men don’t know what they can and cannot say to women, well then, we’ve really dropped the ball somewhere, so to speak.

Richie Sadlier has been one of the leaders in advocating the improvement of sexual education opportunities for young men in Ireland. Along with his colleague, psychologist Elaine Byrnes, Sadlier co-ordinates a 6-week sexual health module for transition year students in an aim to strengthen the approach to sexual education, to promote sexual competence and to make young men aware of the societally and culturally embedded gendered stereotypes, so that they can be understood and challenged. Byrnes wrote that: “While I welcome the national conversation we are now having, it has become one that is highly gendered. And, I see this reflected in the boys, who are all 15/16 years old. They want to understand what consent means in reality, and how they can communicate it in relationships. Their skewed understanding…is that the onus of responsibility is theirs, and theirs alone.” The pair believe that some of the key aspects in understanding consent and developing a good understanding of sexual health, are that of communication and respect, two attributes that are essential in the development of all of our attitudes towards sex. “This is crucial to supporting young people in developing relationships regardless of gender, sexual orientation or identity, that are healthy and mutually satisfying”.

One of the most important points that both Byrnes and Sadlier have made, and really, we all understand this, is the poor quality of the existing approach to sexual awareness education in our schools. There was always that one kid who giggled at every mention of the word ‘orgasm’ or ‘penis’ or what have you. At the time it might have made for a good laugh but for many children it was an opportunity missed. And some of us are feeling the disadvantage of never having had a decent learning opportunity; we probably learned a lot of what we know now through media or popular culture, or maybe even porn, which promotes a very distorted and damaging view of sex and consent.

Sadlier has cited a locker-room mentality and culture as one of the worst influences on young male views towards women. The locker room has long been a place for derogatory discussion of women and a place of toxic masculinity, a place where up until recently, some players felt they could not reveal their true sexuality to those closest to them, a family like no other; teammates. Richie Sadlier has an interesting knowledge of this as he was previously a professional footballer, and is a qualified psychotherapist. He has acknowledged the encouragement for young boys as star athletes and that over time, this develops into an idea of privilege and status, a view that you almost can’t be touched. It very much seems like that was the case with the Ulster incident. Sadlier gives an insight into the suppressive attitude within the professional arena towards any discrepancies: “I really remember their pitch. It was ‘Whatever way you behave, if the media find out, we’ve relationships with the editors’ and if there’s a story on you we’ll negotiate with those papers to get the story out of the papers in exchange for a big profile interview with some bigger player. So you’re kind of in this world where you think ‘It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m going to get away with it’”.

I’ve been a sports fan my entire life and find it hard to process some of the attitudes I’ve encountered towards women. But it doesn’t have to be a difficult discussion if it’s done right. If more people talk about it and make an effort to understand, and if we tackle the issue of miseducation on sex and consent, we can improve the opportunities for all our young men and women. After all, we’ll never know unless we try to fix it.