Promoting Active Consent in 16-24-year-olds

From 2019-2023 the Active Consent programme is working with 16-24 year olds across third-level colleges, schools, and sports organisations to promote confidence, knowledge, and openness in communicating about sexual consent – that is, ‘consent literacy’. The primary programme funder is Lifes2good Foundation, alongside the Social Innovation Fund Ireland, Galway University Foundation, and NUI Galway. We are a multidisciplinary programme based in the College of Arts, Social Sciences, & Celtic Studies, offered by the School of Psychology and the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance. There are four strands to the Active Consents team strategy in all settings:

  • Consent workshops.
  • Drama presentations.
  • Visual and digital marketing/education, all underpinned by
  • Organisational support and training.

These strands are currently best developed in the college sector, which is a model for approaching the two other settings. Active Consent was prominent in the national Consent Framework launched in April 2019 by Minister Mitchell O’Connor at the Department of Education & Skills. Currently, we are currently working with 18 colleges nationwide, having built a network of practice through SMART Consent workshops since 2015. 

The team produced a  consent play, The Kinds of Sex You Might Have in College, premiered in September 2019. This is a unique theatre project, with students having extensive input to developing the drama, cutting edge research statistics, and inclusion of multiple perspectives, including male perspectives/pressures. The actors’ experiences with audiences reflects this assessment. Audiences identify with the hallmark Active Consent approach of exploring difficult topics through a light touch that enables engagement (“I thought it was funny but was still able to express the seriousness of the topic”, First Year student).

 An anonymous survey of NUI Galway college staff stakeholders has identified the drama as a positive new addition to the consent education portfolio and similar feedback on the consent workshop. For instance, one male consent workshop facilitator at a Dublin college said: “The first workshop I went to had a great impact on me. It opened up a discussion about consent between me and my friends and what we thought about the topic”. Our strategy of training facilitators in each college, ongoing support, and the professionalism of staff and student facilitators, combined with our increased resourcing, has prompted a doubling of numbers attending workshops this year. From September to November 2019, the workshops and drama have reached over 7,000 college students directly.

The team are also identifying valuable changes beyond the workshop and drama experience. One staff member recently stated: “Active consent workshops have become part of the college culture and we have seen an increase in conversation and confidence in stating what is okay or acceptable behaviour”. Another staff member said that: “The training really opened up people’s eyes to reality of students’ lives. it generated really good conversations and moved the support services forward”.

A recent collaborating college reports that, despite implementing an extensive programme of workshops for the first time, “We have had 83% felt the workshops were relevant to them and over 85% would recommend the workshop to a friend”. In addition, staff are commenting on preventative learning: “We had several students who commented in the workshops that before the workshop they would definitely have seen all the scenarios as involving consent, after discussion, they said they were not sure at all if there was consent there.” Our college staff stakeholders see this programme as an important driver of change: “The main impact at present is that Consent is now being discussed formally at our Institute”.

Overall, sexual health education continues to be high on the national agenda for change and development. Sexual health is a nexus for self concept and self-esteem, gender and relationships, alcohol and drug use, confidence and communication. This has been seen in the prominence of debate over pornography this autumn, and this too is a topic addressed by Active Consent. Yet the debate has ranged across all of the topics covered by the programme this year. This demonstrates the societal relevance of the programme within the key settings where young people learn, socialise, and experience the transition to adult responsibility.