“If you want young people to make informed decisions, you’ve got to give them the right information”

FNew things are as conspicuously absent in contemporary conversation as sexual pleasure—especially for Irish teenagers.

Gratification, when it comes, is framed by ignominy and guilt, rife with bitterness and sharp with cultural refrain.

In this atmosphere of neurotic solicitation, no one wins, or so Richie Sadlier, former footballer-cum-psychotherapist, believes, whose new book let’s talktackles the problem at the source.

It’s one in a number of books set to publish this year, keen to cover the topic of pleasure, porn and sexual encounters in a way that appeals to young people (“fifteen or sixteen-year-old lads, specifically”) earnestly guiding them through the murky waters of consent, infatuation and arousal in a way that mends the errors of our older, more conservative discussions on the topics in the past.

“Saying that,” he says, “I think people a lot older than 15 or 16 will read this,” he laughs. “And I hope they’ll learn something, too.”

Richie Sadlier: “I’m not bringing any new material.” Photograph Moya Nolan

Sadlier speaks to me from a modern, deep gray room. His head is propped up on a dark green cushion, velvet, positioned in front of pewter wainscotting. It’s his bed, he reveals, where he recently spent his 43rd birthday.

Back in December, Sadlier had spinal fusion surgery to repair an old footballing injury. It was his last resort of him. “I have to lie down for 22 hours each day,” he says, a slight smile forming. “And just when I thought I actually had the strength and stamina to get moving, I got Covid.”

On the page and in interviews, Sadlier is pure vulnerability –– a perpetual motion of beaming gratitude and gargantuan intelligence. In person, he flits between warmth and diligence, his kind-yet-slightly worn eyes and sporting chops deeming him a perfect fit to speak to the demographic of underappreciated teenage boys.

His method is maieutic, employing a question and answer technique, most recently seen in a transcription of a class he held at his old school, St Benildus College in Stillorgan, asking a group of Transition Year students about sex.

“Sex is already in their lives,” he says. “I’m not bringing any new material. They all know what porn is or what arousal feels like or what it is to fancy someone. What I wanted to provide was a place where they can speak openly.”

That place doesn’t really exist for a lot of teenagers, he says. “Some may get that at home, but by and large they’re just kind of left with the internet or the comments of friends and I think we can do better for young lads.

And I say lads because the book is primarily written for boys and young men, but absolutely everything I’m saying absolutely applies to women and girls, too.” let’s talk is peppered with genuine and modern advice, free from preaching, for teenage boys –– a number of pages thick with curt, yet necessary one-liners such as ‘It’s not okay to lose all control of your behavior because you’re aroused’, ‘It’s a cop-out to say you had no choices’ and ‘It’s not good enough to not talk about things because they’re awkward.’

  Richie Sadlier:
Richie Sadlier: “the learning can go both ways here.” Photograph Moya Nolan

It covers the frank nature and detailed nuance of situations that can’t be explained by biology textbooks.

For Sadlier, he wanted it to represent support. “If you want young people to make informed decisions, you’ve got to give them the right information,” he says. “And if you want them to know a little bit about the world, you’ve got to tell them.

My idea is that this book would help parents present themselves as people who are available to support their sons or the young man in their life and/or instigate conversations around notoriously tricky subjects, subjects that the parents were often never told about themselves.

“The learning can go both ways, here. My publishers would shoot me for saying this but my ultimate goal is not sales –– it’s for people to have meaningful conversations with the young men in their lives and kickstart conversations that I never had. I also, importantly, really wanted to get across to young people that every single thought they’re having about sex and relationships are universal experiences.

“I used to run mental health modules in schools and at the end of the classes, every lad had to write a few lines, less than 500 words, on what they got from the module and their own experience with mental health. Almost every single piece of paper I got back detailed how they were happy they weren’t the only ones with experiences of low mood, anxiety or depression. And that really spoke to me. I want them to know they’re not alone, and there are people here to help.”

In many ways, this book has been a long-time coming. Sadlier himself, along with psychologist Elaine Byrnes, has been teaching, supporting and evolving the thoughts of teenage boys for years now with the SHARE programme: an online sex education platform to help younger people navigate various areas of sexual health and wellness.

He covers the gendered beliefs teenage boys have and grapple with every day; that women who sleep with lots of people are less valuable, that boys will always be the ones to instigate sex and that women are the only ones who can experience rape.

  Richie Sadlier:
Richie Sadlier: “I’m not claiming to know everything when it comes to this stuff” Photograph Moya Nolan

His approach matches the various campaigns employed by the likes of Safe Ireland, following the high-profile cases of Ashling Murphy and Ana Kriégel, that highlight the plight that is male violence against women. Did this have an act to play in let’s talk?

“My book aims to support, teach and get conversations going,” he says. “I can see how someone can link what I’m talking about to some of those horrific situations, a number of which I truly believe are the most awful things to happen in the history of the State. But I’ve written this more for the young lad who has his first girlfriend and does n’t know how to control his jealousy of him, or the 15-year-old who wants to know how to tackle consent. I also want to inform young lads that sex and everything attached to it doesn’t have to be scary.

“It can be beautiful and meaningful and go towards some of the most important moments of your life. This book is more for the young man who is crying out for information that, for a number of reasons, he’s not getting. And I want to change that, whether it be from me or someone else.”

This is, of course, Sadlier’s second venture into publishing. The first, a compelling autobiography, recovery, written with sports journalist Dion Fanning, won the 2019 Irish Sports Book of the Year. In it, Sadlier reveals the details of his repeated experiences with sexual abuse at the age of 14 by a middle-aged physiotherapist.

He still played professional football for Millwall (“have you seen the pictures from then — my hair? Shocking stuff”) and received one cap for Ireland under Mick McCarthy before a hip injury ended his career at 24.

His book and work have been widely praised and, rather than being perceived as a victim, Sadlier is admired as a psychotherapist, a pundit and an astute interviewer. He also stands steadfast in his determination to knock ‘bloke’ culture on the head, acting as the guiding light for teenage boys everywhere by showing you can be a proud man, strong and astute in your knowledge of sex without claims of immasculinity haunting you.

“I can understand immediately why he’s been successful where so many struggle,” Aisling Keenan, journalist and host of sex and relationships podcast private education, on which Sadlier has spoken, tells me. “He’s got a great calm about him when talking on subjects like consent and sexuality, and a preternatural ability to build a rapport with whoever he’s in front of. Sex is not an easy topic to broach, least of all with teenagers and boys in particular.

“His approach is non-judgmental, honest and realistic, and he doesn’t talk down to anyone or veer into preachy territory. If I was a teacher or school principal, I’d be straight out to get copies of the book for my students.”

It’s clear from speaking to Sadlier that there’s very little he’ll refuse to talk about. Whether it’s his regrets — a number of which lay bare in the book — his openness and often times liberal honesty facing your own sentimentalities, or his St Bernard, Bobbi, bursting into the room mid-interview, his frank reality neatly frames him, and much the same can be said about the book.

His use of real-life conversations from the therapy room (names and identifying features have been changed to protect identities) will genuinely shape, for the better, the lives and thought processes of young people who engage, allowing the reader to feel for the first time in a long time that the future is indeed bright.

“Listen, I’m not claiming to know everything when it comes to this stuff,” he says. “But what I am saying is that I’m here, willing to support, in a realm that the average teenager likely doesn’t get a lot of support in. And that your desire to learn about sex is very, very normal. Everyone likes to know how to do something before they do it — why should sex be any different?”

  • Let’s Talk (€16.99), published by Gill Books, is available to buy now


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