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A teacher Early years sex education can reduce aggression in children and improve gender equality

Teacher Dearbhla Crosse says the new teachings for Catholic primary schools from the Irish Bishops Conference is not in line with latest research.

WOMEN HAVE BEEN shackled over time by a fear of sexual violence. As a little girl, I was taught to protect myself.

By the time I became a woman, it was instinctual. To stay safe. That somehow being more cautious, dressing ‘appropriately’, or keeping to daylight hours would prevent sexual assault.

The onus is always on the woman yet 98% of reported sexual crimes in Ireland in 2018 were perpetrated by men. It’s not all men but it is enough men.

Some high-profile rape trials in the past have shown that men’s understanding of consent is also incredibly warped. To fully tackle rape culture and femicide we MUST teach young boys about consent and boundaries.

A 2013 Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) report found that 37% of sexual violence towards children is perpetrated by children themselves; 97% by boys. This clearly indicates an urgent need for early invention. So why then do we still have an archaic sex education system focused on puritanical notions of virginal purity and sex as a sin?

Mixed messaging

Herein lies a tale of two Irelands – the abstinence-only approaches versus comprehensive sexuality education. Abstinence seeks to sweep sex under the rug, with the echoes of a historical past seeped in sexism.

Comprehensive sexuality education teaches the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality, which fosters healthy relationships and is proven to delay young people’s engagement with sex. It’s not hard to guess which is more effective, yet the tenets of Catholicism are woven tightly throughout our Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Ireland. 

Ninety per cent of all primary schools and nearly half of all secondary schools here are run by the Catholic Church. This means the ethos of a school dictates how RSE is delivered.

Flourish is the latest conflation of religion and RSE. Designed by the Catholic Church, it teaches that sex is an act from God to be avoided until marriage. Abstinence-only approaches have been found to be ineffective, stigmatising and unethical and the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) says it doesn’t provide information on the full range of contraceptive methods. They also focus exclusively on heterosexual relationships, denying the experiences of LGBTQI+ students. 

To top this off, young people recently said RSE was not taught early enough and was ‘selectively addressed’, which means 90% of them are accessing information on the internet. Twenty percent of these found pornography ‘useful’ to learn about healthy sexual relationships, which is fairly indicative of a failing curriculum.

Secondary schools are also only required to teach six RSE classes a year and just over a quarter of these are taught. This infrequency merely compounds the atmosphere of awkwardness. 

Teachers left powerless

Teachers are often tasked with teaching RSE to make up hours and a teacher’s own beliefs can lead to personal interpretations. It brings me back to being taught about the dangers of sex by our Religious Education teacher with the usual puberty tropes aided by a video about our changing bodies.

‘Just don’t do it’ was the general sex education message shouted across the chorus of giggling girls. 

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is thankfully developing a new curriculum but it could take years. Niall Behan IFPA CEO says the development of inclusive and age-appropriate sexuality education needs to come hand-in-hand with the structural, legal and policy changes needed to implement this too. In the meantime, an interactive toolkit is embedded within the current curriculum as part of the Gender Equality Matters project led by Dublin City University. This focuses on tackling gender stereotyping, gender-based violence and gender inequality. 

However, psychologist Elaine Byrnes argues that even the best curriculum can’t effect change if it isn’t delivered properly: ‘Teachers are moonlighting as sex educators. A maths teacher wouldn’t say I’m not comfortable with Pythagoras’ theorem so I’m not teaching it. Cherry-picking isn’t comprehensive fact-based information.’ 

Although the NCCA admits that teacher competence is a problem, there are no mandatory trainings and many schools rely on external facilitators. The issue here is there is no official register of qualified sexual health experts vetted by the Department of Education.

So, effectively anyone with the ‘sexpertise’ of a potted plant could facilitate a class. ‘Accord’, the Catholic marriage care service, is the second most popular external provider across Ireland.

In the Netherlands, children are taught comprehensive sexuality education from the age of four. The approach teaches boys and girls about love, consent and boundaries through play and builds up to discourse around forming healthy relationships, gender identity, and bodily autonomy. This provides children with the tools to navigate healthy sexual relationships when they’re older. In Sweden, it has been taught since 1955.

Challenging societal conditioning

Some experts have cautioned that children could be left more vulnerable to sexual abuse by remaining ignorant. Hans Olsson from The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education says ‘There is a fear around what children should or shouldn’t know but they are naturally curious so the ostrich in the sand approach never works.’

Young people have reported less sexual and gender-based discrimination where sexuality education is integrated into schools. The Netherlands has the lowest percentage (15%) across Europe of sexual activity under the age of 15 and the number of women under the age of 25 experiencing sexual coercion decreased as a result of progressive sexuality policies. 

A societal acceptance of boys not being able to control their urges simply gives some of them a carte blanche to do certain things. Boys are often peer pressured to initiate violence.

Olsson argues that if we teach boys to reject violence as a means to resolving conflict or exerting power then we can reduce violence as a whole. Conforming to stereotypical concepts of strength and masculinity leaves young men ill-equipped to navigate their emotions.

According to Yuri Ohlrichs, of Rutgers, a Dutch Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights NGO, toxic masculinity is often due to misconceptions over power dynamics. Boys should be encouraged to discuss vulnerabilities and develop their kind and nurturing side.

Empathy is key

Teaching empathy from a young age is proven to decrease aggression. The Roots of Empathy programme run by Barnardo’s across 200 schools in Ireland is based on immersive learning in which children develop empathy and socio-emotional competencies.

A small baby is brought in once a week with a trained instructor who coaches students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. Children then identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. A key component is children must always ask the baby for permission, teaching them about boundaries.

Children learn that although the baby may not have words to express how they feel, they are a ‘theatre of emotions’, which enables them to read body language and facial expressions. A study in Northern Ireland showed reduced aggression was sustained beyond programme participation and it is now funded by the UK government to tackle violent crime.

Repression only increases violence, which is why we need to do away with abstinence-based preaching. Far too much autonomy is still given to those who would re-enact policies that enabled an entire generation of women to be punished and shamed.

The Department of Education must put an end to an education system governed by religious doctrine and create a mechanism to vet external educators. Age-appropriate RSE should be delivered weekly by a qualified RSE teacher and all schools should be required to hold sexuality education workshops for parents.

Behan says: “Comprehensive sexuality education is an indispensable primary healthcare measure. Yet Irish education is failing our children and young people. Every day in IFPA clinics, we see the impact of inadequate, inconsistent, and poor-quality relationships and sexuality education.”

Less consideration is given to RSE as it is not an exam subject. Yet, it is arguably the most important life lesson we will ever learn.

Cultural and societal constructs form our prejudices and as Cliona Saidlear, RCNI Executive Director points out we can’t simply educate away sexual violence. However, early intervention can combat rigid gender roles, reduce harmful stereotypes, and shift patterns of inequalities.

Through comprehensive sexuality education, we can teach children to engage with those around them to create a less violent, less sexist, more equitable society in the future.

Dearbhla Crosse is a freelance writer, teacher and advocate on sexual and reproductive health and rights.


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