Irish students have consistently said they feel their needs are not being met through how sex education is currently taught, but we now have the opportunity to make a change, says Caroline West.
I recently taught a class on the history of sex education in Ireland.
Afterwards, I spoke to a student afterwards who shared some shocking information. Her friend’s choice of protection was the pill only, as she thought she only had to worry about contraception. She did not use condoms as she did not know anything about STIs.
Thankfully her friend urged her to get tested.
Another student shared his experience of sex education provided by an external agency. He was given a rose, told to crumple it, then try to put it together and restore it to its former glory. This exercise, he was told, represented virginity and the destruction caused by casual sex.
These examples are indicative of how our young people are entering sexual relationships without the information needed to be able to make informed decisions about their health, their desires, or be able to exercise their autonomy freely.
Sex education in Ireland is young, at only 20 years old. It was brought in as a recognition of a changing Irish society where people did not have adequate or factually correct knowledge of fertility, contraception, or STIs.
Two initial studies (Bonner, 1996; MacHale and Newell, 1997) also highlighted how young people were having casual sex at a young age, finally opening up a discourse on these realities of Irish society.
Another study (Mahon et al., 1998) highlighted how pregnant women felt they had little to no information on fertility, contraception, or how to communicate in sexual encounters.
RSE (relationships and sexuality education) can take different forms, from the Stay Safe programme, Busy Bodies, and the Trust programme, but students have consistently stated that they feel their needs are not being adequately met through how sex education is currently taught.
Fast-forward to our current situation, and while teachers can allocate up to 400 hours to SPHE/RSE, this often does not happen. Since initial reviews (Morgan, 2000), more than 90% of parents feel that sex education is an important part of the curriculum, and high levels of support continue today.
Research from Nohilly and Farrelly (2017) found that teachers would like to have more time to teach sex education, but felt that the sensitive nature of the topic impacted this, alongside their own feelings of not being adequately trained.
The main challenges facing effective roll-out of sex education were identified as: sex education being considered a low-status subject (with exam subjects prioritised), time constraints, and teacher discomfort. The same concerns were reported again in a 2008 review.
Due to these concerns, sex education is outsourced in almost 50% of schools; however, these agencies and their qualifications are not regulated.
The recent Oireachtas review of sex education proposes that these organisations become regulated, that sex education is taught consistently across the country, and that teachers are adequately trained.
These proposals also advocate for a curriculum that is reflective of our modern society — inclusive of different sexualities and gender, addressing pornography, consent, safe use of the internet, and equipping students to make informed decisions that are right for them.
These proposals were developed after extensive consultations with parents, students, and teachers.
These proposals are in line with international guidelines from organisations such as the UN, WHO, and Unesco, which carried out extensive reviews of sex education programmes in different countries.
They found that where young people had access to sex education that was comprehensive, the age of first sexual activity was higher; there were fewer unwanted pregnancies; contraception use increased; and people felt more empowered to make informed decisions that were right for them.
In 2018, the UN published Guidance on Sexuality Education, which advises that sex education should be taught from a human rights, fact-based approach.
At the moment, progress on implementing these proposals has stalled while we await a report from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
This report is still accepting submissions. I urge you, whether you are a parent, teacher, or student, to contribute to it and share your views and experiences. You can submit your views on the NCCA website (ncca.ie).
This is an opportunity to have comprehensive sex education that empowers young people instead of failing them, like the people in my earlier examples.
Ireland has a new HIV diagnosis every 18 hours, STIs are on the increase, and young people are consistently telling us they need information and support around sex education.
We do not have the luxury of kicking the can further down the road while our young people suffer the consequences of our discomfort.
Please take this opportunity to create a more holistic and happier experience of sex and sexuality in Ireland.
Dr Caroline West is a lecturer and researcher in Sexuality Studies at DCU.