Sexual Health

My Sex-Ed Experience: The bill that Could Change Irish Relationship and Sexuality Education

I can only vaguely remember sex education in primary school. Going to an all-boys primary, the sex-ed seminar was held in conjunction with the all-girls primary across the road. All of sixth class, over sixty students, were packed into the gym. From what I remember, the class mostly consisted of suppressed giggling at the pictures of penises.

The teachers presenting the class, spoke somewhat about the biology of sex, a lot of which was known to the boy school students. I can’t speak for the girls, but I imagine they had an idea. Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of education.

Secondary school wasn’t much better. As I went to a mixed gender secondary, some kind of education in sexuality would have been helpful. Alas, no such luck. I remember discussing safe sex in third year, and its importance, but nothing substantial. Nothing memorable.

The only real sex education I can recall receiving was in biology. I remember the palpable anticipation flowing through the class as we made our way toward the chapter titled ‘The Sexual Reproduction System’. Our teacher noticed it too, and immediately corrected it. No hushed giggles this time.

Of course, knowing the comprehensive biology of sex doesn’t tell you how to act upon your sexuality. It’s the old ‘is-ought’ problem; you can’t derive an ought from an is, or you can’t derive ethical guidelines from a set of facts. A comprehensive lesson on the inner-workings of the penis doesn’t tell you how to use it ethically.

In April of 2018, Richard Bruton, Minister for Education, ordered a complete overhaul of the relationships and sexuality education (RSE). Some elements of the RSE are over twenty years old and subject to external influence from the school’s patrons; the Catholic Church.

Mr Bruton suggested an overhaul of a number of key elements within the RSE such as:

* Consent, what it means and its importance;

* Developments in contraception;

* Healthy, positive sexual expression and relationships;

* Safe use of the internet;

* Social media and its effects on relationships and self- esteem;

* LGBTQ+ matters.

These all appear to be positive changes. The Ulster rugby rape scandal definitely demonstrated a feeling among young women that the way consent is taught needs to be changed. An emphasis on LGBTQ+ issues is also something that young people appear to desire.

Many of the problems facing RSE appear to stem from the outsourcing of sex education to Catholic counselling agencies. The Rape Crisis Network, the National Women’s Council, the Irish Family Planning Association and LGBTQI+ advocacy group ShoutOut have called for the removal of religious influence from RSE.

These groups have shown support for The Objective Sexual Education Bill proposed by Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger, which aims to teach RSE from a purely factual and objective perspective. The bill would secularise sex education and cover the issues outlined by Mr Bruton.

This bill combined with the overhaul proposed by Mr Bruton are the latest steps in combatting a youth that has been disenfranchised with the current RSE curriculum. Youth Work Ireland, the largest youth organisation in the State, conducted a poll in April of more than 1,000 people aged 14-24. The poll found that over 90% of young people find the internet more useful as a source of information on sexual subjects than their parents or teachers. A further 20% thought that pornography was a useful source of sexual education.

This information is indicative of a serious flaw in Ireland’s RSE, that appears far more fundamental than just the curriculum.

Scandinavian countries have found a solution to the problem of disinterest among students and teachers regarding RSE. For example, in Sweden, sex education is taught at every level of schooling. Their RSE manual states that “no information is harmful to children if it is conveyed in a manner appropriate to their age”.

Sweden’s RSE model contains two components. The first component involves teachers teaching students sexual education incrementally as is appropriate for their age. For example, they may begin with consent one year, then porn another, then intercourse the next and so forth. The second component aims to integrate sexuality into other subjects. History classes discuss the development of LGBT+ rights. Maths classes may use a gay couple in a word problem. This inclusive attitude helps to de-stigmatise sexuality from an early age and fosters transparent discussion about otherwise taboo issues.

In retrospect, my sexual education was poor. While we were taught in depth on the facts of sex, we never learned how to act properly in the modern world. The Catholic ethos does not account for the problems facing sexually active young people today. While the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction, it pales in comparison to our Scandinavian counterparts.