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Eoghan Cleary 'We've handed over the sexual education of a generation to the porn industry'

The teacher’s students gave him an honest account of the pornography they were exposed to every day.

FOR THE FIRST time ever in Ireland, pornography is going to be discussed with Junior Cycle students from next September as part of the new Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) Curriculum and some concerned sections of the population are understandably asking questions, such as:

  • Why?
  • Why teach children about it at all, and why now?
  • What’s that going to look like?
  • What impact will it have on them?
  • How will it be taught?
  • How will teachers be trained on how to teach it?

I have developed and taught a pornography literacy course to transition year (TY) students of all genders for the last five years after our school realised how much students in this country were relying on online content for their sexual stimulation and sexual education.

‘No one has spoken to them’

My current TY students tell me some of them were first exposed to porn at the age of eight with over a third having first seen it in primary school. According to a whole school survey we undertook, by the time our students reach their Senior Cycle years, almost all report being exposed to porn.

About half of those surveyed are using pornography regularly and a quarter of our male students report using it once a day or more.

All those who use porn report that they rely on it to know what they are expected to do in a sexual interaction and how they are expected to do it. But until they land in my class, no one has ever spoken to them about it.

In the absence of any effective positive guidance from us, the adult population, around what sex can be, we have handed over the sexual conditioning and sexual education of this generation of Irish adolescents to the porn industry.

Honest discussions

As part of the course they do with me – which is now part of a porn literacy programme developed by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre called “Let’s Get Real” - the students list the things they assume are expected of them in a sexual encounter.

As soon as they list these ‘expectations’, the impact their reliance on pornography has already had on them in this regard is undeniable.

Boys expect to have to “do the chasing”, be dominant and be aggressive (more recently including choking, slapping and “throwing her around”). They feel they are expected to be in control and to know what they want; to want anal sex, to stay hard until she orgasms, to ejaculate on various parts of her body and to be with as many sexual partners as possible.

The girls feel they are expected to be submissive (choking and slapping consistently come up here now too). They feel they are expected to perform sex acts for their male partner; hand jobs, blow jobs. They feel they are expected to swallow, to have “no hair from the neck down”, to make pleasure noises, to orgasm or pretend to, to be “kinky”, to do what he says and to do what he wants.

It may be shocking or distressing for parents especially to read about these expectations of young students, but we can no longer proceed with our heads in the sand. This is not just representative of one group of students, this is the list of the common expectations of every group I’ve facilitated for the last five years; a snapshot of what is most certainly a wider societal issue across the country. Young students now have access to social media and content online from a very early age. And with this access comes exposure to porn. It is unavoidable in 2023. If we don’t reach them and educate them, then a sexually exploitative, profit-driven wilderness is only too happy to grab their attention first.


The rest of the programme we are implementing provides these students with the space they need to critically reflect on the impact pornography has had on their expectations of sexual encounters.

It also provides them with the skills they need to figure out how, when they do decide to have sex with someone, to ensure that they have the highest possible chance of it being a positive, consensual and empowering experience for both people involved.

We have found that once students start talking to each other about the kind of sexual experiences they actually want to have, again as part of this programme, the relief in the room is palpable. They are freed up to realise that sex can be a private shared experience of intimacy, vulnerability, ecstasy and fun that they no longer feel pressurised into performing but can wait until they feel genuinely excited about experiencing. In short, they realise they can have sex, not porn.

‘It’s about the internet’s access to them’

Some parents think it’s about time someone spoke to their children about porn. Some parents are horrified at the idea. As a country, we’ve decided to provide 97% of our 13-years-olds with smartphones, and 95% of our 8-12-year-olds with their own smart device. Many of these children report being allowed to access the internet whenever they like with no rules attached (Cybersafe Kids Academic Year in Review 2022).

Parents are inclined to think, “Well, not my child” and the truth is we have the statistics; more than likely, yes, your child.

And even if it isn’t being relied upon directly by your child, enough of your child’s peers and the students in the classes above and below them in school are relying on it that it has infiltrated the general adolescent culture around what is expected in sexual interaction and at some stage, that will become highly relevant to your child.

Other parents are inclined to assume, “Well, my child wouldn’t…” but it’s no longer about your child and what they would or wouldn’t do. It’s not about their access to the internet. It’s about the internet’s unfettered access to them.

Algorithms designed to target them based on their age and gender bombard them with sexually explicit content through every social media platform available before they would even naturally consider themselves as sexual beings at all.

Some Irish children as young as eight currently have 24-hour access to the most violent, degrading and misogynistic video content available in the world. I know this because my students tell me. In the car, on the bus, in their classroom, in the school toilet, in their bedroom and in their bed. Who else do you allow into bed with your child at night? All night, every night? Why do you grant the porn industry that privilege? They don’t care about your child or their positive sexual development at all. It’s all just ad revenue and data harvesting they’re after.

Pornography is not the product. Your child (and their data) is the product; porn is just the bait.

Two decades ago, when I was 16, the internet made pornography a secondary school problem in Ireland. No one spoke to us about it and no one taught us about it. We clapped ourselves on the back for finally acknowledging our sexually repressed past; we threw off the moralistic controls of the Catholic Church and we rejected their authority to tell us the kind of sex we should be having and who we should be having it with. But then we didn’t really know what to do next and many of us handed our newfound ownership of sexual development straight into the hands of the porn industry. We thought porn was a healthy part of a sexually liberated society. It isn’t.

The free online porn thrust upon our children is mostly a prescriptive formulaic performative set of sex acts generally depicting taboo sex that is most violent, misogynistic and, more often than not, reinforcing damaging sexist and racist stereotypes.

It is generally not representative of what a non-performative intimate sexual encounter looks like. But without ever having been properly taught about positive sexual development themselves, the now parents of my generation don’t know how to start the conversation with their kids. Other than, “this is how you do it, protect yourself, and don’t hurt anyone”, they don’t have the vocabulary because no one ever gave it to them in the first place.

The internet made porn a secondary school problem when I was in school. Smartphones have now made porn a primary school problem and we need to talk about it; we need to start teaching about it.

The problem for teachers

Few teachers are properly trained to teach sex education, or SPHE. The way timetabling works in schools is that teachers get allocated their hours to teach the subjects they are qualified to teach: English, Irish, Maths etc. Then when all of the subjects are covered and teachers still have some free contracted hours left on their timetable, they are given SPHE classes to teach.

Some teachers embrace this, many resent it; none became teachers to teach it. And these are the skills in life – the skills to do with identity, knowing yourself, relationships, consent, sex and now an awareness and critical understanding of the impact of porn – that our students need to be taught with the utmost authenticity, integrity, sensitivity and care in order for them to effectively trust and rely on the guidance the teachers are providing.

To teach someone how to read, you’ve got to be able to read yourself. To teach porn literacy, you’ve got to be porn literate.

Very few teachers are trained in this regard. But training does exist. There are fantastic non-governmental organisations providing pornography literacy training for teachers that book out within hours of announcing their next training dates. In 2022 alone, over 150 teachers and youth workers completed one of the two training programmes offered by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre addressing these issues. Going above and beyond their job description, as so many consistently do, teachers are independently seeking out this training themselves in an effort to support the issues they can see their students are facing.

But without any evidence to date of a standardised approach by the Department of Education as to how teachers are going to be trained to teach these subjects and, more importantly, without any guarantee that every single teacher to be tasked with teaching these sensitive topics in schools is actually going to be trained in how to do so, people are right to be concerned about how this new SPHE content is going to be delivered and by whom.

The bottom line

It is so important that we teach this, and it’s even more important that we teach it right. Like sex itself, this is not something we want to rush into or regret. The positive sexual development of future generations of young Irish adolescents depends on it and that’s not to be taken lightly.

As a society, it is not something we’ve been very good at in the past but we know better now and it’s time we start getting it right.

Eoghan Cleary is a secondary school teacher and assistant principal who has lived and worked in Co. Wicklow teaching English, Drama, SPHE and Wellbeing for the last six years. He has over 10 years previous experience as a youth worker in the east inner cities of both Dublin and Galway and has studied at UCD, NUIG and TCD, completing master’s degrees in Drama and Theatre Studies, International Human Rights Law, and Education.


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