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Sunday 1 October 2023 Dublin: 17°C
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Opinion Young people deserve and need sound guidance on healthy relationships and sex
Ciara Lynch of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre says what is increasingly clear is that society needs to get real on sex education for children and young people.

THE NATIONAL COUNCIL for Curriculum and Assessment recently published the updated Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum for Junior Cycle, covering sexual consent and healthy relationships as well as the potential impact of popular culture and the online world on young people.

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has long advocated for SPHE reform, in particular on the Relationships & Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum, having created our own trauma-informed Youth Programmes for educators working in various youth and educational settings in response to demand.

BodyRight is a sexual violence awareness and prevention programme; Let’s Get Real teaches young people to be critical consumers of the media around them, including social media and pornography.

A clear pathway

The teachers and youth workers we train tell us that young people need solid information and support about what they are encountering in popular culture. The educators themselves want guidance and information on how to effectively teach and deal with such topics, due to gaps in the SPHE curriculum, in particular around RSE. So these reforms are long overdue.

Let’s clear up one thing: in the updated SPHE curriculum, just as in our Let’s Get Real programme, young people are not being taught pornography or encouraged to watch it.

Rather, the aim is to empower and upskill young people to be more critical in how they assimilate the information coming at them from all sides. If young people are not receiving proper, well-informed, age-appropriate information on consent, healthy relationships, and respectful and safe sexual encounters from the educators in their lives – their parents, teachers and youth workers – then they will turn to other sources.

Smartphones and other devices offer easy access to the Internet and, inevitably, to pornography, as we consistently hear from teachers and youth workers.

The evidence is clear: In research from Youth Work Ireland’s ‘Positive Sexual Relationships’ Report in 2018, some 90% of young people reported that the internet was their most trusted source of information on healthy sexual relationships, with 20% of young people finding porn useful and a good source for relationship information. If we as a society are content to leave relationships and sexuality education to pornography, we must realise that this will shape young people’s sexual scripts in very particular ways.

Education is key

Our Let’s Get Real programme aims to encourage young people to analyse and question what they are watching and consuming online. The programme discusses brain development and the potential impact of pornography on developing brains and subsequent behaviour.

Consent, consideration, empathy and respect – for oneself and others – are at its core.

DRCC’s mission is to prevent the harm and heal the hurt caused by sexual violence. We believe that education is key in this, and while ideally, young people receive this formation at home, it must also be available in schools – not just “progressive” schools, but all schools.

Our research on consent shows that 70% of people believe there is a problem with consent in Ireland, and an overwhelming 84% support age-appropriate sex education in all schools. Further, if it is to be effective, we believe teachers and educators must be adequately supported, trained, and resourced to deliver this content.

Educators tell us they need proper training to feel equipped, empowered and competent to impart such important subject matter to the young people they work with. They voice concerns about the standardised roll-out of the new SPHE curriculum resources, citing timetabling and school ethos as potential barriers to students across Ireland receiving this guidance. They are passionate about the importance of equipping young people with adequate information – and are concerned that we are letting young people down by not talking about these issues in schools.

Implications for society

The CSO national sexual violence survey published in April shows us that, as a society, we must do much more to prevent the harm of sexual violence, with four in 10 adults reporting that they have experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime.

Worryingly, younger people report a higher rate than older people, at 52% of those aged 18-24 years. Younger men aged 18-24 experienced sexual violence in their lifetime (39%) at almost double the rate of those men aged 65 and over (17%). It’s the same for younger women (65%) and older women (35%).

The CSO’s more detailed survey released on 18 May on the prevalence of sexual violence experienced as an adult shows 30% of younger adults had experienced sexual violence in the previous 12 months as opposed to 9% of all adults. Bisexual and gay/lesbian people reported higher levels of sexual violence as an adult (55% and 40% respectively) than heterosexual/straight people (25%).

These hard facts only reinforce the need to educate younger people about what is acceptable behaviour in sexual relationships and encounters, for all genders and sexualities.

Anecdotally, we are hearing that more young people are attending Sexual Assault Treatment Units, and seeking therapy, counselling and other supports. Increasingly, these abuses are also being carried out by other young people, as borne out by Garda/CSO data: Both the victim and suspected offender were under 18 in one in five cases of detected sexual violence reported in 2019; One in six suspected offenders of detected sexual violence crimes reported in 2020 were under 18 years when the offence took place, while a third of suspected offenders were aged between 18 and 29 years.

It is clear that we as a society should offer proper formation on this issue: an accurate, informed, age-appropriate curriculum, given adequate time, adequate teacher training, and adequate resources in order to ensure it is delivered to every young person nationwide, to the highest standard possible.

It is hoped that the new SPHE curriculum will fulfil this need at Junior Cycle, with Senior Cycle soon to follow. Young people have the right to access adequate information to navigate life in a safe, healthy way. If we are serious about reducing sexual violence in Ireland, especially among younger people, we will wise up as a society, and support them to get that.

Ciara Lynch is Education and Training Officer with Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, primarily delivering training in the BodyRight and Let’s Get Real youth programmes. She also works part-time as a Psychotherapist.


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