Richie Sadlier on the conversation young Irish men should not avoid

Richie Sadlier on the conversation young Irish men should not avoid

2 months ago

"It’s not work that everyone can do. It’s work that actually some people would be appalled by and would have no interest in – but it’s work I like doing."

Richie Sadlier didn't have a book that spoke frankly and fairly to him about sex and relationships when he was a teenager, so he wrote one.

Granted, his own teenage years were long in the rear-view mirror by the time he put the finishing touches on it, but that's kind of the point.

'Let's Talk' finds the 43-year-old footballer-turned-pundit drawing on his expertise in the world of psychotherapy – where he runs a private practice, working predominantly with teenagers – and, crucially, the kind of wisdom and understanding you can only develop from a fair amount of life under the collar.

The goal is clear. Communicate honestly and respectfully with teenage boys about adolescence and the many pitfalls it can present, particularly when it comes to sexuality.

Across a range of topics – dating, sexting, the role of alcohol, pornography, consent, break-ups and many more – Sadlier is constantly looking to do one simple yet complex thing – start a conversation.

Sadlier is quick to point out that he was "probably too damn shy or embarrassed" to engage in such dialogue as a teenager. He also acknowledges that we're dealing with a significantly different generation in 2022.

"I think adults spend a lot of time wondering, ‘Is a life without social media – how does it compare to a life with?’ – but the teenagers today have no concept of a world where social media doesn’t exist," he offers.

"They have no experience, no memories, of there not being an Internet. So, they don’t know any different and it has loads of advantages; you can connect in with people if you’re feeling isolated or alone, if you want to access information you can find it, if you want to feel a part of things – social media can form a load of really important functions for a young person.

"Of course, there’s a negative as well.

"You can feel excluded," Sadlier explains.

"If you’re not part of a very visible group on social media, you can feel isolated. And you can be receiving a lot of contact which is very, very unwelcome – messages from other people, which can be, again, going back to being a teenager; it’s daunting, it can be overwhelming, it can be really shaming and it can feel like way more than you’re equipped to deal with.

"Social media is too big a beast to whittle down into one catchy answer but I think when you’re talking to young people and you’re listening to young people, the best approach is to tease out what their experiences are and work out a way that would actually add to their experience of it and help them."

The normalisation of a life lived primarily online may not be exclusive to Generation Z – millennials are painfully familiar with spending most of their day consumed by screens of information – but the ease of access to an endless stream of pornography, for example, is something that Sadlier believes no other generation has had to navigate.

"Porn, unfortunately, is providing the role of sex teachers for a lot of young people," he says.

"I don’t think that should be a process that we should let go without some kind of an intervention."

Sadlier is careful not to demonise porn as an overall construct, nor the people who create it or those who derive pleasure from it.

He's more of the mindset that there ought to be an appropriate and responsible context placed around it, especially for those in their formative sexual years.

"Talking to people about porn, not necessarily ‘What do you watch? What do you get off on? Tell me what scenes you look at?’ – it’s just to step back and invite them to critically reflect on what they’re watching," he says.

"And to maybe challenge the view that what they see in a porn scene – which is scripted by a director and agreed beforehand by the actors involved – it’s not at all an expectation that you should have of what your next experience will be with the person you meet next week."

Sadlier says there are plenty of ways to approach conversations about the subject, with the age groups even extending beyond the teenage level.

"Some people love it, some people are disgusted by it, some people can take it or leave it, and then [for] some people it can add loads to a really, really healthy relationship they have – to sex or to their partner," he notes.

"When it’s young people, though, they don’t have the reference point of real-life experiences, and that’s the key thing. They’re generally coming to this with open eyes and very little experience and they want to learn.

"So, it’s really understandable, it’s kind of common sense, actually, for a 15 or 16-year-old who has never seen sex anywhere and has never had a description of what sex should look like or feel like or sound like; the only sex that they’re seeing is what’s being produced to them by the online porn industry. 

"It’s common sense for them to think, ‘Ah, this is what it looks like, this is what I should say, this is what my partner should say and sound like, and those are the actions which I know are going to work well for me in the bedroom because look at all these people, they all seem to be really satisfied and aroused – they’re actually loving it, they can’t make enough noise – to give everyone the clear idea that they love it’ – that’s common sense for young people to think that way. 

"It is, of course, a bonkers way for a young person to think; that everything they see in porn is going to work well for them in real life," Sadlier contends.

"And I think you don’t get to give that message to young people if you decide porn shouldn’t be discussed. And you don’t get to help them avoid making mistakes or poor choices in their future if you don’t address now with them what possible choices they may face in the future.

"Which is why in the book, I say just get rid of all the judgemental commentary around people who might like porn, the shaming commentary about people who are in porn or who like porn, or any of the real fear-mongering statements about it.

"Porn exists, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s available to everyone. Young lads are excited by it but they’re learning about sex from it, and I think we should step in and join that conversation and provide a different kind of learning about sex."

A multi-layered issue, certainly. Though laid out in a concise, easy-to-rapidly-devour manner, Let's Talk isn't without notable instances of three-dimensional commentary.

One striking case study in particular details the experience of a young man given the pseudonym of Lucas who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman when he was 19.

His story is very much shared as a cautionary tale as Sadlier lists how, now aged 22, Lucas was "stuck in a pit of self-criticism, shame, regret, embarrassment and pain, and feared he would spend the rest of his life feeling like this".

"It was too late to turn back the clock, obviously," notes Sadlier in the book.

"But he knew his drunken actions had drastically changed the course of his life."

It's worth highlighting that Sadlier presents this section in a black-and-white way, focusing on the consequences and the gravity that arise from hurting another person.

There is undoubtedly an element of humanising an individual who has committed a horrible crime, which is of course extremely sensitive material to deal with.

It is clear that these actions are not condoned or downplayed – Sadlier tells us that "the challenge then for a therapist is to be empathetic and to be understanding and to see the person in front of you as a person, not just someone who has behaved in a particular way at a particular time in their life".

The cold reality is that they are still a human being with a life of their own to live, in this case a 22-year-old with many years ahead of them. How difficult was it to find the right balance here?

"One of the dilemmas I had with the book is, I’m a real believer in the power of sharing stories and sharing experiences and it can just kind of bring certain topics to life," says Sadlier. "Rather than just talk about things in terms of defining words or talk about topics in an abstract way.

"If you say, ‘This person faced with these choices made this decision and this was the outcome, this was the consequence’ and you just share that – with young people in particular I think it can land with them much quicker and much better in a much more impactful way.

"But I didn’t want to write anything in the book which revealed the identity of the people I was talking about. So I had to be a bit creative and change some of the details and make sure that even the people I’m talking about might not realise they’re the ones that I’m referring to. But the broader point then about working with people who have behaved in ways which might appall some people – that’s the work of psychotherapy.

"You work in mental health, you will work with people whose behaviour sometimes might jar with your own values, with your own… you know, this list of dos and don’ts that we all have in our own head," Sadlier continues.

"It’s not work that everyone can do. It’s work that actually some people would be appalled by and would have no interest in – but it’s work I like doing."

And, by the sounds of it, the work is of vital importance. A new generation of Irish men will likely have encountered the word 'consent' more often than previous iterations.

Sadlier doesn't see much value in laying blame at the feet of anyone, be it the Catholic church and its knock-on effect on the Irish school system over the years, for perhaps failing Irish men on the sexual education front.

He'd rather get on with the job at hand. Where does he think we're at, though, in 2022 when it comes to consent and its place in the national conversation?

"I think I’ve heard more about consent in the last few years than I’ve ever done, but I’d say the vast majority, if not all of the conversations that I’ve heard or taken part in in public about consent have been on the back of some incident or allegation of some kind of non-consensual behaviour," he says.

"So, we seem to be comfortable and keen and enthusiastic in talking about consent when something bad happens to somebody – which isn’t a great way to start a conversation. A lot of people are usually quite worked up and emotional and someone is in a lot of distress and those stories and those experiences impact a lot of people.

"To talk about consent, particularly with young people, is to do it not on the back of somebody doing something horrendous to somebody else.

"And not on the back of someone being a victim and someone being really distressed and traumatised. It’s just to tease out – like, ‘What the hell is consent?’. Consent is just all about you and your partner, or partners, whoever is involved in what’s going on at the time – is everyone happy? Are they safe? Are they enjoying it? Are they okay with it?

"Use whatever words you want but basically, is it okay that what is happening is happening? You only know that by communicating with one another.

"Some of us can do that just by our body language and the way we look at one another, particularly partners who have been together [for] years. There’s an understanding. They know each other way more than they did the first time they met. But with young people, in some cases you’ve got to break it down for them.

"They’re got to learn to talk to their partner and be keen to hear from their partner. And that involves talking about sex. That involves talking about what you want and what you like and what you enjoy. We don’t arm young people – Christ, we don’t even let adults in this country talk openly about that stuff.

"So, we do have a long way to go but it would be really great if the conversations we had around consent were about consent, not how we’re all emotionally impacted by incidents of non-consensual behaviour by someone who is facing criminal charges."

Image via Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Sadlier has been a recognisable public figure for some time now, between providing insight and opinions on RTÉ and the Second Captains podcast, often offering more than just your standard football pundit phraseology.

He's not been shy about the issues we're chatting about today, either. I have to ask – does he ever experience pushback from people who might not be keen to engage in these kind of sensitive conversations or may even reject some of the subject matter entirely?

"I do see – probably more online, I don’t get personal messages, nobody stops me in the street telling me to shut up about consent or stop aiming to start conversations with young people or support young people, I just don’t get messages like that," he says.

"If there are people online who are reluctant to hear certain things said about this topic or are resistant to take part in conversations – that’s fine, the world is big enough for loads of different ideas and opinions. 

"But I think when you work with young people and if your aim is to support their development – that’s a very vague statement and it’s very broad – but if you want to support their development in this area, then it really helps to understand adult behaviour and to be aware of what can go wrong and how things can go right in the bedroom among people. 

"So I think if you take all that experience, talk about it in some way with young people in a way that will actually help; I think that’s useful. And for the people who don’t want to be involved in that conversation – it’s fine.

"There’s loads of other conversations happening all over the Internet. Join them."

But how far can this conversation go? Following on from the recently announced overhaul of the secondary school cycle in Ireland, should Sadlier's book be added to the curriculum?

"I’m sure there’s a publisher sitting next door or someone from Gill Books saying, ‘My god, say yes! And keep saying yes!'… I’m uncomfortable with that question," he admits.

"I think this book could achieve what I set out to achieve with it, which is to help young people to learn, which is to help young people to answer some questions privately on their own, in a room, reading the book.

"It might initiate some conversations with young people and the adults around them and it will help adults around young people understand a young person a little bit better. I think all of those things are achievable."

Let's Talk is out now via Gill Books priced at €16.99