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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 23 April, 2014

Column: Let’s talk about sex (maybe)

Why does sex education in schools address so little about real-life relationships, sexuality, and the practicalities of obtaining contraception?

Image: Yeko Photo Studio via Shutterstock

“TODAY WE’RE GOING to talk about those er… parts of our bodies covered by our swimwear.”

Our male teacher’s discomfort was palpable as he began his introductory sex education speech to our class of ten-year-old boys and girls. This opening line is one of the few elements of our obligatory ‘sex education talk’ that I can recall, confirming my initial belief when I first began my research for this article that nothing worthwhile was discussed.

What do I mean by worthwhile? Well the word ‘puberty’ was never uttered. Instead, a vague notion of ‘different feelings’ was thrown out there for us to decipher at will, while the hurried manner in which charts depicting penises and vaginas were flashed in our direction,  before being laid faced down on the teacher’s desk, were reminiscent of a Brain Train Memory Game involving body parts

Needless to say, apart from another school day where girls and boys were separated with the purpose of discussing periods and erections, I never had another ‘sex education talk’ throughout my schooling.

‘Sensitive’ information

However, a global survey released last October confirmed that I am not the only one. Despite the passing years, the survey reported that almost 30 per cent of people were leaving school with little or no formal sex education. While a report by the Department of Education revealed that a third of schools ignored the most ‘sensitive’ areas of the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme, which for the last decade has been rolled out in our education system.

So, what is meant by ‘sensitive’? Well let’s take the concept of masturbation. A completely normal and healthy activity for people to engage in including, obviously, young teens who have recently hit puberty.

However, seen as almost taboo by teachers, this subject is never mentioned in a sex education class, inevitably encouraging young people to view it as something to be confused and perhaps embarrassed about.

Same-sex relationships also appear to be out of bounds. In fact, many LGBT teens only first learn about safe sex practices when they attend youth groups specifically designed for LGBT people. The negative consequences resulting from the failure of the RSE programme to not recognise that same-sex relationships exist include the potential exposure of young uninformed teens to STDs and an indirect fuelling of homophobic bullying.

Practical advice

Looking at things from a more practical view, while the use of contraception is mentioned to girls and boys alike, how to place a condom on correctly or obtain the pill is not. Other important information, such as whether a teen’s parent’s permission is needed or optional in order for a girl to avail of the pill is noticeably absent from any such sex ed talk. The mention of the morning after pill is also skilfully avoided.

Policy and Research Manager of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, Stephanie O’ Keefe says “The research shows that comprehensive sex education programmes can play a role in preventing crisis pregnancy.” So why is vital information around contraceptives not discussed as part of our young people’s sex education?

“Only have sex when you’re ready” is a mantra drummed into children from an early age. Yet young people are never advised on how they know when they are ready. For example, do they trust the person that they are contemplating sleeping with? How comfortable do they feel around them? Are they under the legal age of consent? If so, do they really feel mature enough to be having sex? Are they aware of the potential legal ramifications of having underage sex?

Shouldn’t easily uttered clichés be replaced with real life situations/scenarios that deliver empowering messages to both girls and guys about many aspects of sex education, including saying no to peer pressure when it comes to engaging in sexual activity?

The elephant in the room

Despite technology being now ubiquitous in young people’s lives, sex education talks never address the topic of pornography, nor ‘sexting’ for that matter. With regard to pornography, surely teachers here are missing out on a vital opportunity to convey to our young people the huge difference between real life sex and the ‘sex’ which can be seen online?

Their lack of willingness to confront this topic essentially leaves young viewers with a warped sense of what sex is all about. For example, having watched porn, those who are uninformed about real life sex could be forgiven for assuming that all men have really large penises, that women are obligated to have sex with a man at the drop of a hat/boxer shorts, that both men and women alike have been graced with a level of flexibility that an Olympic gymnast would be envious of and – most worryingly – that condoms are merely an unnecessary hindrance.

These untruths can only lead to feelings of inadequacy and obligation on the parts of those whose knowledge and experience of real life sex is virtually non-existent. All in all, porn gives young uninformed teenagers all the wrong messages.

It is blatantly clear that teachers need to grow a pair (no pun intended) when tasked with the duty of teaching their pupils about the birds and the bees. After all, what use is sex education that is highly censored?

The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous for employment reasons.

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