Life lessons: We need to talk to children about sex and relationships

In the age of smartphones and near universal access to unregulated internet content, it’s time for a revision of school curriculum regarding relationships and sex education, which hasn’t been updated in over 20 years, writes

Life lessons: We need to talk to children about sex and relationships

In the age of smartphones and near-universal access to unregulated internet content, it’s time for a revision of school curriculum regarding relationships and sex education, which hasn’t been updated in over 20 years, writes

Andrea Mara

I’d love if kids could be taught that sex can be pleasurable and sex can be awful, and doesn’t echo what they’ve seen in porn clips.

SOCIAL media, sexting, and access to porn — we’re living a fast-evolving society and young people are facing new challenges nobody could have conceived two decades ago, when the sex education curriculum was last reviewed — it’s high time we found a new way to talk to kids about sex.

In April, Minister Bruton requested a review of the Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum — a programme that’s mandatory in all schools but delivered inconsistently. For example, the 2013 SPHE Inspectorate report found that while RSE is provided at senior cycle in 96% of secondary schools, there was a significant variation in the quality of this provision.

At primary level, the relationships and sexuality education programme includes topics such as “Showing Our Feelings”, “Keeping Safe”, and “How My Body Works”. The teacher support material encourages using biological terms for body parts, and in senior classes, puberty and reproduction are covered. It looks reasonably comprehensive, so why does it need an update?

“The programme was designed 20 years ago for a very different Ireland so it’s certainly time for a review,” says Alice O’Donnell, a Wicklow-based primary school teacher. “Society has changed a lot in those years, schools and families are far more diverse. Communication is key in helping our children to understand each other but we can no longer take those skills for granted; children spend more time communicating online than they do face to face. If we don’t provide accurate, factual information then they’ll fill that gap with what they see online in an unregulated environment.”

With around 90% of primary level children attending schools under Catholic patronage, religious ethos can impact what is taught in RSE, and not all topics are covered in all schools. O’Donnell gives an example: “Sexual orientation is not covered by the core RSE curriculum in primary school but it can arise as a question, and even if it doesn’t by late primary some children are very aware that they are not ‘conforming’ and are attracted to people of the same sex. There are also children in our schools who have same-sex parents. They deserve to see families like their own so that they feel accepted.

“The INTO LGBT Teachers’ Group has produced a great pack on this issue, it covers it in a very simple, natural way from 3rd class up. Crucially though, it’s an additional resource and not yet part of the core curriculum. It’s down to each school to decide how they approach or avoid the topic and I imagine that it’s avoided in many Catholic schools for fear of any perceived conflict with ethos.”

Ciara Fitzgerald, principal of Monagea NS, a Catholic National School in Co Limerick agrees it’s time for a review. “The most recent RSE guidelines were issued in 1997, and the resources available for the broader objectives and more sensitive areas are out-dated.”

She says they need to be modernised to reflect today’s Ireland. “The teaching resources and curriculum need to encompass the diverse and inclusive nature of schools today, in terms of nationality, creed, physical disabilities, special educational needs, sexual orientation, and family composition.

“Everybody deserves to see themselves in the curriculum and especially in relation to something so important.”

Beth Kilkenny is a parent of two young children, aged eight and four, and feels conversations about relationships are key. “What’s really important to me, more so than the biological aspects of reproduction, is teaching the ethics of healthy and respectful relationships. All relationships,” she says.

“I don’t see why this needs to wait until later in the school cycle, the sooner the better. For me, it’s vital that my son sees girls as his equals, and my daughter sees boys as her equals, so anything that can be done to foster that, including eliminating gender stereotypes in the classroom would get a big thumbs up from me.”

The issue of consent has been in the media recently, and Kilkenny believes it’s something that should be covered primary school. “I think it’d be a good idea that discussions on consent and bodies take place before second level. It’s important that boys learn about menstruation too, so they don’t think of each other as alien species.

“I think everyone was horrified with the WhatsApp messages sent by the rugby players at the rape trial in Belfast. And a similar scenario with the ‘rape list’ in a Cork school. What’s happening here is that these boys and young men are not seeing their female peers as equals, or even as people, just objects.”

Minister Bruton’s request to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment includes consent, contraception, safe use of internet, and LGBTQ+ matters. He also said there must be “more effective communication between parents and schools regarding the teaching of RSE”.

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley stresses the importance of this involvement from home. “I think parents are ducking a bit, saying the school should deal with sex education, but the first port of call is the parents. If parents were told about topics a week before the RSE lesson, it would give them the opportunity to discuss at home. I’d recommend that if the school is going to be talking about periods, that you’ve had that conversation already, that your child is not sitting there stunned.”

At second level, the focus of RSE is on relationships, belonging, and understanding of one’s developing sexuality, says Dr Patricia Mannix McNamara, deputy head of UL’s School of Education and who specialises in education studies with particular focus on health and wellbeing. “RSE is well-taught up to junior cycle in most schools, and after that, access can vary,” she says. “A key challenge for the health education curriculum is that at senior cycle, the pressure of Leaving Certificate means packed timetables, and principals have real challenges in seeking to find space on the student timetable.”

But school is just one element of health education. “In the recent debates on the recent Ulster case, the default position seems always to be, teach more RSE in schools. I do think that’s important, but school is only one factor and with only a certain amount of impact, she says. “While RSE is essential, the other places where sexuality, masculinity and femininity are strongly played out, like sports organisations, are the places where we should also be doing this work. They’re the places that must explicitly state, ‘We have specific values around identity, we are inclusive, we believe in respect, and breaches of these core values are not commensurate with the human dignity values we prize as a sports organisation’.”

Dr Amy Watchorn, senior clinical psychologist with St John of God hospital believes the RSE curriculum should also be looking closely smartphone usage, because this is where so much of the communication takes place. “Kids and teens are ‘digital natives’; they’ve grown up in an era in which this is the norm — access to the internet, smartphones, social media — they know no other reality,” she says.

“Tech has taken off at a rapid pace; access to porn, anxiety, the pressures of social media; and we’re only starting to catch up. I think updating the curriculum to look at these areas would be really important. It would allow you to address the wider issues around anxiety that young people face on social media, and the presentation of themselves online.”

Young people are more impulsive than adults because neurodevelopmentally, their brains don’t fully develop until the age 25, she points out.

“So the parts involved in pleasure-seeking are more advanced than the parts involved in rational decision-making, and that mismatch makes teens more impulsive. We need to talk to them about taking risks and about managing their impulses online. Changing the curriculum would be a huge step — and could include conversations around over-sharing and digital footprint.”

But there is no need for parents to panic. “There’s a lot in the ether about the dangers of social media but it’s a new evolving area — what’s most important is that we try to have conversations with children and teens – that parents and schools make sure they’re communicating and listening.”

The free and easy availability of pornography is shaping many children’s expectations of sex. “I’d love if kids could be taught that sex can be pleasurable and sex can be awful, and doesn’t echo what they’ve seen in porn clips,” says O’Malley.

“I’d love the politics of porn to be brought into RSE, specifically that porn is not how girls have sex. There’s loads of pressure on boys to use porn, and then there are lots of them falling into porn addiction. Porn today is never ending — there is always anther film available and this feeds anyone with a growing habit. I meet lots of teenage boys who are ashamed and disturbed by their growing porn habit. It also creates a dehumanised attitude to sex.

“I’d like to see more detail on PMT too, so that people understand the enormous fluctuations that happen to women over the course of a month.”

She believes consent is an extremely important topic, one that can be introduced at home. “Parents could have a conversation like this: ‘Remember your friend Laura wanted you to go to her house and you didn’t feel you could say no — remember how that felt? Now imagine you’re with a boy and he’s brought you to a disco and he’s giving you a lift home and you’re trying to say no but you’re having difficulty. Do you see how you could fall into a place where you’re not saying no?’”

Consent is a topic that the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) sees raised often at their annual FemFest workshops. “Body image and consent are consistently raised by young women,” says Orla O’Connor, NWCI Director. “They also talk about the digital sexual abuse they experience through non-consensual sharing of explicit images.”

She says the NWCI welcomes the curriculum review, and in particular, that it will cover both content and delivery. “The provision of RSE is inconsistent, as each school determines the topics covered in accordance with their ethos,” says O’Connor. “This may mean they do not discuss contraception, or homosexuality.”

Indeed, Solidarity TD Paul Murphy has put forward a Bill to have RSE taught factually and consistently across all schools — at present, schools can opt out of particular topics based on ethos.

CHANGING SOCIETY: Moira Leydon, assistant general secretary ASTI, at the recent ASTI annual convention in Clayton Silver Springs Hotel, Cork, advocates a review of the curriculum to bring up-todate sex education in our schools.
CHANGING SOCIETY: Moira Leydon, assistant general secretary ASTI, at the recent ASTI annual convention in Clayton Silver Springs Hotel, Cork, advocates a review of the curriculum to bring up-todate sex education in our schools.

Moira Leydon, assistant general secretary of the ASTI, also says the RSE review is necessary. “The 2013 report from the Inspectorate on Social Personal and Health Education, which includes the RSE programme, indicates that on the whole schools have in place both good programmes and good practice. However, there is considerable room for improvement in content to address emerging social problems as highlighted by the current debate on consent.”

Of course, at the core of all this is the child who will sit and listen during RSE class, and Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents Council says she’s keen that all stakeholders’ views are taken into consideration, but particularly those of parents and children. “Children need to be listened to about how they best hear and understand messages,” she says. “Their views can get missed, particularly at primary level. How they learn and who they want to learn from is important generally, but particularly with areas like this. The child has a unique view of how it’s being delivered, and that shouldn’t be missed.”

With stakeholders and interested parties all seeking input, it’s important we don’t forget the consumers – the children who are growing up in a society very different to ours, navigating online worlds many of us don’t fully understand. At the very minimum, we must give them the opportunity to start a conversation, and give them the up-to-date, relevant knowledge they need.

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