SEX HAS NEVER been a comfortable subject in Ireland to discuss. From the acknowledgement and acceptance of the gay community, to the liberal stance on sex, as a society we haven’t been very loose-tongued about the issue – and how we teach young adults and children about sex is no exception.
Primary and post-primary schools are required to allocate 30 minutes a week to Social and Personal Health Education, and Relationships and Sexual Education (RSE) makes up one part of this. In primary schools, children are taught about ’naming private parts of the body’, ‘the baby growing in the womb’ and ‘puberty and new life’.
For secondary schools, they are expected to adopt their own guidelines and policies based within Social and Personal Health Education (SPHE), and the Department of education’s guidelines.
A recent study found that sexual and relationship education in schools needs to be overhauled in many countries – including Ireland.
The study, which asked students of what they thought of their schools’ approach to their sexual education was too ‘scientific’ and students often felt vulnerable in sexual education.
It also found that it emphasised abstinence and some students felt their sexual education was delivered too late and at times by ‘poorly-trained, embarrassed teachers’.
Rather than ask their family or friends, what often happens when children and young adults have questions about sex is they turn to the internet for answers.
In one particular comment stream on Reddit about sexual education in Ireland, one commenter said:
I didn’t know girls had armpit hair till I had a long term girlfriend at 18 who thought I was a retard [sic] when I said at least women don’t have an armpit hair.
Think about how little knowledge I have on reproductive organs [sic]. Thank God I knew about condoms. If it wasn’t out of sheer curiosity and a broadband connection, I’d know nothing.
This is both the huge advantage and the downfall of the internet. Although it holds a lot of information on every subject, it also holds a lot of misinformation, especially on the subject of sex (search ‘how do I know if I’m pregnant?’ for proof).
Added to the danger of the internet for curious young people, is the accessibility of pornography online, and the often inaccurate light it portrays sex in.
A recent opinion article in the Guardian recommended that porn be shown in classrooms and that it be analysed by young people and the teacher.
Although a controversial suggestion, it also poses a relevant topic – that sexual education must go into greater depth for students, because if it doesn’t, they’re forced to find it elsewhere.
Religion in the classroom
Dr Aoife Neary, a lecturer in Sociology of Education at University Limerick, held a conference on ‘Teacher Education for Gender and Sexuality Diversity’ last Thursday.
Neary says that Ireland’s Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) needs “significant reworking both at primary and post-primary levels”.
She says that RSE guidelines need to move away from the ‘ethos’ and ‘characteristic spirit’ that shape how teachers broach the subject with their students.
That is not to say that sexuality education ought to be devoid of discussion about religion. I think there is a need to put sexuality in conversation with religious faith but within an environment that is not entirely shaped by one religious norm.
She also says that there is a need to educate about the spectrum of sexes (male, female, intersex), sexual identities (heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer) and gender identities (cisgender, transgender, non-binary) and not an approach that reproduces LGBTQI people as vicitimised ‘others’.
Research I’ve done recently in primary schools demonstrates how schools are operating largely under a very reactive model in relation to gender and sexuality identity because of a lack of official policy and curricular guidance and because of uncertainty fears around school ethos and the reactions of parents.
“But as research tells us, children are grappling with gender and sexual identities at a very young age and many parents see the need for educating their children in an age-appropriate manner in relation to these issues.”
Neary recommends that there needs to be a review of sexual education in Ireland, with a greater emphasis on pleasure and desire – as young people are already learning about these elsewhere.
The reality is that most teachers and leaders – irrespective of school context – have significant reluctances and anxieties around teaching about relationships and sexuality.
“While many pre-service teachers have some introduction to gender and sexuality built into their teacher education programmes, for many, this is often not enough to combat fears around student and parental reaction as well as factors such as school ethos.”