Ditch the shyness and just get on with talking to children about sex

The last sex education programme was introduced in 1999, before the advent of smartphones. A Dáil committee has been looking at updating it, writes Alison O'Connor

iStock
iStock

So, parent — it’s the end of primary school and you still haven’t spoken to your child about sex? Then tough luck, there is no place in first year being offered to you by your local secondary school.

If I was in charge, that’s the policy I would attempt to put in place. Harsh, I know, but desperate times and all of that. Also probably impossible to actually implement, but the threat of it could work wonders.

The appalling and barbaric case of Ana Kriégel is one that few of us will forget for the rest of our lives. Everyone is looking for answers, especially parents. We want something to explain why it happened, something to comfort us, to tell us this was a particular set of circumstances which is unlikely ever to be replicated. One thing we can definitely say though is that action — parental and at school level — is needed, and fast.

Layered between my sorrow for poor Anna and her parents is a rising anger at the disservice we do to our girls and boys in Ireland in how we fail to teach them about relationships and sexuality at home and at school. There is such value in students learning about sex and sexuality in the company of their peers, all the better if it is in a mixed-gender class. The first educators here should be parents, and it should be taught to children from a very young age. Does this mean ruining their precious innocence? Of course not. There are any number of age-appropriate ways to go about it as they grow.

It’s as simple as not pushing your children, for example, to kiss and hug people, including relatives, if they don’t want to do so.

It’s about asking if they wish to have their photo taken. This may seem excessive, but think of the photos that may be taken of them later in life and how the concept of them giving their agreement should be instilled from an early age.

More importantly, it tells a girl that if she’s feeling pressured to send a photo of herself to a boy, or to have one taken of her, that it’s not just something she should feel forced to do. Or if she’s received an unsolicited “dick pic” from a boy, she’s perfectly within her rights to tell him to shove it where the sun don’t shine. Apparently these cyberflashing photos are a daily reality of life now for many young and not-so-young girls.

My anger really starts to seethe when I think of a parent who has never taken the time to speak to their teenage son about such things; that they have a son who is possibly upstairs taking photographs of his penis and sending it, without being asked, to someone’s daughter who lives down the road. Would these be the same parents who never spoke to their son about sex as he approached puberty and the type of sex he would be seeing on the internet? Who neglected to tell him that it depicted acts that in no way should be seen to reflect a fun and mutually pleasurable real-life sexual encounter? Would they be the ones shocked to discover an online stash of porn which their unsupervised, unadvised son had been lured into watching as internet algorithms offered him more and more hardcore content as he became increasingly desensitised and addicted?

Imagine allowing your 11-year-old to watch online pornography and see the aggression the male is almost always expected to show towards the female, who accepts it and is actually seen to welcome it, and to never discuss it with him. How terrifying that would be if no one had ever told him this was not real life? What a thing to do to your child — and to anyone else’s daughter who might be unfortunate enough to end up in a sexual encounter with that boy, to whom anal sex is practically first base?

Imagine, also, if we did not tell our daughters that virginity is their “prize” — that whatever the sexual encounter she is involved in, she should get just as much pleasure as the boy involved. Imagine telling her that in the (very likely) event of being asked for a “quick blowjob” her answer should be: “And what will be in it for me in terms of pleasure?”

Imagine how empowering that would be for women, what it would do to that tired old message that, for teenage girls, it’s all about pleasing the boy.

Parents of girls generally do not have the luxury of not having these chats because of safety issues, although all too often they are simply couched in scaremongering type of language rather than that which empowers. It’s time, though, for parents of both boys and girls to ditch the shyness and just get on with these conversations. In today’s environment, it is appalling negligence not to do so. It can be uncomfortable, but what’s a little awkwardness compared to the awful way you are treating your child by not talking to them about it all? The plus side of the online world is the reams of advice on how to talk to your children about the birds and the bees and the violent porn available on their phone.

The good news is that a new sex education programme for schools is on the way. The last programme was introduced in 1999. Given the time that has passed and how the sexual landscape has been changed by technology, that 20-year-old programme is about as useful now as an ashtray on a motorbike.

At the beginning of this year the Oireachtas committee on Education and Skills produced a report on Relationships and Sexuality Education. Crucially, the Committee stated that, from its hearings and research, there is a need for change in the national mindset with regard to sex education in Ireland.

The committee wants improvements made to the curriculum, particularly in the areas of consent and contraception, and a curriculum inclusive of all students and to give voice to LGBTQI+ students and those with special intellectual needs, who are often overlooked in this area.

Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin
Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin

Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin, who chairs the Committee on Education and Skills, said the curriculum must be reviewed to reflect today’s society and delivered in a consistent manner to all students and from an earlier age, so that it becomes embedded in our children’s social development.

Needless to say, there has already been a backlash. For example, leaflets have been distributed in Ms O’Loughlin’s Kildare constituency which were designed to damage her.

This is part of a wider campaign of misinformation being whipped up, with parents being told that their four-year-olds will be taught how to masturbate. As a result, hundreds of letters have been sent to the Department of Education. The Government hasn’t actually yet made any decision about reform to sex education.

Ms O’Loughlin summed it all up all wonderfully in a statement, saying: “Despite what is written on the nasty leaflets, there is nothing sordid about informing our children that they can say no, that they can be free to express themselves, that they should be open and inclusive. Society can only benefit from educated, well-informed children.”

As we are realising, to devastating effect, to not do so can be criminal.

That 20-year-old programme is about as useful now as an ashtray on a motorbike

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