Making and doing: Generating research knowledge and using It to promote positive changes in sexual health

Elaine Byrnes

Posted: 10 February, 2017

We are pleased to share a second blog post from the team at the SMART Consent Workshop at NUIG. Today’s piece has been written by Elaine Byrnes, PhD Candidate in Child & Youth Research and Dr Pádraig MacNeela, Lecturer, School of Psychology, NUI Galway. Dr MacNeela has received funding from the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme and from the Council to conduct research in collaboration with Rape Crisis Network Ireland. You can read Dr MacNeela’s first #LoveIrishResearch blog post here

In the era of the knowledge society, contributions to public discourse about an issue of scrutiny and concern are increasingly founded on being able to cite statistics – being able to say ‘how much’ or ‘how many’. This demonstrates our ability to bring previously hidden phenomena to light; the extent of sexual violence in our society and patterns of sexual behaviour are two examples of this.

Research has brought to light some compelling data on both sexual violence and sexual behaviour. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s ‘Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland’ study in 2000 showed 42% of women, and 28% of men, reporting some form of sexual assault or abuse. In 2009, the Rape Crisis Network Ireland ‘Rape and Justice Report’ revealed that two-thirds of women affected knew the perpetrator beforehand. These findings helped to chart the prevalence of sexual violence and expose the myth that most assaults are made by a stranger. Research, such as the ‘Say Something’ report by the Union of Students in Ireland, has also brought a realisation of the role of binge drinking in sexual violence and the scale of impact on survivors.

Parallel to this work on sexual violence, research and data on patterns of sexual behaviour is important in helping to identify sexual health education needs , to achieve a fuller understanding of the significant changes that have taken place in this domain within Irish society in recent years. The Crisis Pregnancy Agency ‘Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships’ (2006) was a landmark in this area. It demonstrated that a vast majority of respondents supported education on sexual intercourse, sexual feelings, contraception, STIs, and homosexuality. Two-thirds of respondents felt that pre-marital sex was ‘never wrong’, a striking development from a comparable finding in the 1970s that over 70% of respondents considered pre-marital sex to be ‘always wrong’.

Having access to comprehensive information raises a second question for the knowledge society – how can we deploy research findings in an applied setting to achieve social gain? My PhD research has sought to address this point, first, by shedding light on college students’ sexual attitudes and secondly, by using this research in an attitude change intervention –  the SMART Consent workshop led by Dr Pádraig MacNeela at the School of Psychology, NUI Galway.

My research involved a survey of almost 1,700 undergraduate students. The survey content reflected the two themes highlighted above, namely patterns of sexual behaviour and exposure to sexual violence. Approximately 25% of females reported lifetime exposure to unwanted sexual contact or attempted sexual contact by someone using, or threatening to use, physical force. Eight per cent of males reported similar experiences. Eleven per cent of females further reported, having unwanted sexual contact within the past 12 months, when incapacitated or unable to give consent. At the same time, the survey asked about normative sexual attitudes, such as personal comfort with a range of sexual behaviours and perceptions of peers’ comfort with the same behaviours.

Several of the SMART Consent workshop activities drew on these research findings. One example is derived from social norms theories – which describe how we often believe that our peers have different attitudes and behaviours to our own, when in fact they do not. Our assumptions about what others deem acceptable can then feed into our decision making. The survey has illustrated that females, in particular, typically report perceiving their same gender peers to be far more comfortable than they are personally with casual sexual encounters. There is usually a gap of 30% or more in comfort levels between personal comfort and perceptions of peer comfort with the same behaviour. This contrast feeds into two social norms estimation tasks for students in the workshop – ‘what percentage of women said they are comfortable personally with casual sex?’, and ‘what percentage said their female peers are comfortable with casual sex?’ Group members give their percentage estimates by standing at a point along a rope laid out on the floor. Once everyone has chosen their estimates, we deliver the feedback on the survey findings and initiate a discussion about social influences and expectations on sexual decision-making. This technique of the walking debate was designed by Dr Siobhán O’Higgins at NUI Galway.

Experiences such as these demonstrate the importance of finding appropriate and impactful ways to bring research findings back to the populations and social groups that generated them. The SMART Consent workshop is a mechanism for engaging our target group to learn about and discuss the emerging research knowledge on positive sexual health promotion, and to further inform us as we continue to explore the field. The knowledge we generate about our society also needs to be channelled back to that society to prompt social change.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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