Sex education in schools: Too little, too late, and too biological

Sex education in our schools is being overhauled — and not before time — pupils, parents, and teachers tell Joyce Fegan

Sex education in schools: Too little, too late, and too biological

Sex education in our schools is being overhauled — and not before time — pupils, parents, and teachers tell Joyce Fegan

Following the passing of the marriage equality referendum, the repealing of the Eight Amendment, the flood of cheap online porn, the rise of the #MeToo movement and various high-profile rape trials, Ireland’s sex education is finally being overhauled.

A review of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is ongoing. A draft report has been completed and it is open for public consultation until October. The report covers issues of consent, contraception, LGBT+ issues and safe use of the internet.

Thousands of people, from students to teachers, and from parents to stakeholders contributed to the draft report.

In general, students said that RSE tends to be too little, too late, and too biological.

The majority of parents agreed that age-appropriate and relevant RSE is an important part of the school curriculum, and teachers said they would like greater clarity on how to approach topics at different stages of children’s learning in RSE.

In terms of a future curriculum, the review highlighted the need to create just one curriculum that sets out the learning from early childhood to post-primary.

However, currently there is a great disparity in what children learn in sex education in our primary and secondary schools.

A spokesperson from the Department of Education and Skills explained that each school can implement learning based on their own ethos.

“All schools are required to provide an RSE programme for all students. Schools are required to develop a policy on RSE which should reflect the values and ethos of the school as outlined in the school’s mission statement,” the spokesperson said.

“The right of schools to uphold their ethos and characteristic spirit is recognised by the Department of Education and Skills, including the delivery of RSE within the characteristic spirit of the school.”

However, it is a requirement that all aspects of the RSE curriculum cover issues relating to sexual orientation, contraception and sexually transmitted infections.

Furthermore, at post-primary level, the RSE programme is delivered through Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) until the end of junior cycle and a separate RSE programme is in place for senior cycle.

These RSE programmes deal with issues of education about gender and sexual orientation, explained the spokesperson from the Department of the Education and Skills.

However, young people from Spun Out, BeLonG To — a LGBT youth organisation — and members of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) told the Irish Examiner of their varying levels of sex education, where issues around sexual orientation, consent and identity were omitted in their entirety.

Moninne Griffith, executive director of BeLonG To, said transformation of our sex education is what is needed to help our young people.

“We need to transform how schools view and engage with sex education and LGBT+ issues,” she said.

“A step forward would be the inclusion of LGBT+ issues in the core RSE curriculum, but real change means the integration of LGBT+ issues across all relevant subjects.”

At the core of Ms Griffith’s argument is research around suicide rates of young LGBT people.

“Research shows that 70% of LGBT+ young people feel unsafe at school. Feelings of isolation and not being accepted can have serious impacts on the mental health of our young people,” said Ms Griffith.

“According to the 2016 LGBTIreland Report, LGTB+ young people are three times more likely to attempt suicide, and two times more likely to self-harm than their non-LGBT+ friends. Supporting our young people towards positive mental health should not be optional. It is too important.”

Meanwhile, the president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Lorna Fitzpatrick said RSE needs to be free from religion, despite a school’s ethos currently being allowed to be reflected in their curriculum.

“USI is disappointed to see there has been little to no movement on the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, as USI believes that the RSE curriculum should be free from religion, be delivered in a way that is factual and objective, within a curriculum that educates on contraception which is inclusive of sexuality, gender, LGBTQ+ issues and consent,” Ms Fitzpatrick told the Irish Examiner.

“Due to this, USI feels that students are not receiving appropriate sex education in school and that this needs to be addressed urgently.”

This bill, which is before Dáil Éireann at third stage, would guarantee the right of students to receive factual and objective relationships and sexuality education without regard to the characteristic spirit of the school.

The National Women’s Council (NWCI) have worked on the issue of sex education for more than 40 years. The group says sex education in our schools is “inconsistent” because topics can be determined by the ethos of the institution.

“Open communication about relationships and sexuality has not been a feature of Irish society and the provision of RSE across schools is inconsistent because each school can determine the topics covered in accordance with their ethos,” a spokeswoman told the Irish Examiner.

The result of this inconsistency is that young people miss out on learning about healthy, happy and safe relationships. “This may mean that they do not discuss contraception, homosexuality and perpetuate stereotypical ideas about sexuality in general. As a result, some young women and men will go through the school system without acquiring the information they need to negotiate safe, happy and pleasurable relationships,” the spokeswoman said.

Anyone wishing to make a submission to the new RSE curriculum can do so by visiting the National Council for Curriculum Assessment’s (NCCA) website here.

Teaching consent in our schools

Padraig MacNeela: ‘For a lot of kids its just about respect
Padraig MacNeela: ‘For a lot of kids its just about respect

Four years ago, after much research and development, Pádraig MacNeela and Siobhán O’Higgins’ SmartConsent workshops were rolled out in Irish universities. The workshops are voluntary for students but last year there was a 600% rise in their uptake across Irish campuses.

They are now rolling out these workshops in secondary schools.

“We’ve worked with five or six schools piloting this,” Ms O’Higgins told the Irish Examiner.

“By going into schools and talking about consent, we can see if this workshop format will work. There is no point going in and talking about consent in a school where they haven’t had good RSE, with students who don’t understand their own bodies, and just talk about consent.

“You’re just adding on top of the confusion. It’s very difficult now to be a parent. We need to be supporting parents to have a realistic conversation with their children.” These workshops will begin in schools in early 2020.

The definition of consent that they work from is OMFG — ongoing, mutual and freely given.

From their work so far they are positive about the change that is now happening in Irish society.

“It’s definitely possible to change and the same momentum (in universities) is building up in schools, they’ve been nudged in same direction,” said Mr MacNeela.

“We would be hopeful that a lot of headway has been made, we have reached a tipping point towards consent education being the norm, all the building blocks are there. For a lot of kids it’s just about respect, it’s not about sexuality.”

‘We are having a conversation about misogyny’

Caroline West: ‘Lets equip people to have sex in a safe, pleasurable way where you can communicate your needs’. Picture: Moya Nolan
Caroline West: ‘Lets equip people to have sex in a safe, pleasurable way where you can communicate your needs’. Picture: Moya Nolan

“At the heart of it is: how do people think this is acceptable to do to another human being? We are having a conversation about misogyny; how are our young men valuing young women and if they are at all?” according to Caroline West, lecturer and researcher of sexuality studies in DCU “At the heart of it would be kindness and how we relate to each other, all of that comes before sex. There is a mutual valuing, but we need to start really early with the basics of relating to each other, with compassion and self-compassion.” However, when it comes to porn and our young people, the researcher explains that it is not just porn in its most obvious sense that influences impressionable minds.

“Misogyny is a massive societal problem. The rape and torture of women is entertainment, it’s in TV shows and movies. Let’s stop making rape as entertainment — Game of Thrones has rape scenes. Is it necessary? What kind of depictions of women are we consuming, what kind of representations of sexuality are we seeing?

“We also need to talk about how are women depicted on Instagram, YouTube and on a billboard. It’s so insidious. You even have wedding cake toppers where a wife is dragging a groom down the aisle — that’s not cute, it’s misogynistic,” said the researcher.

A key part of sex education at an age-appropriate level should be pleasure believes Ms West, because people have sex for fun and pleasure, not to just procreate.

If pleasure is not part of the sex education conversation then we are not having it properly, says the researcher.

“Let’s equip people to have sex in a safe, pleasurable way, where you can communicate your needs and desires and be confident in that communication, rather than being in a situation where you’re uncomfortable,” said Ms West.

‘As a country, we are very cagey when it comes to talking about sex’

The ISSU advocates following the Dutch model, where regardless of the schools’ denomination, a one-size fits all sex education curriculum is in effect.
The ISSU advocates following the Dutch model, where regardless of the schools’ denomination, a one-size fits all sex education curriculum is in effect.

Sean Carey is the welfare officer for the ISSU. His job is to cater for the mental and physical wellbeing of all secondary students across the country.

As we all know relationships and sex play a huge part in the lives of teenagers butunfortunately many of us are receiving little or no education on these topics.

As my term has onlyrecently begun, I have not personally done much for the advancement of Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) but ISSU as a whole have outlined a model which we believe should be implemented.

It follows along the lines of the Dutch model where, regardless of the school’s denomination, a one-size-fits-all curriculum is in effect.

This means the school does not have a choice in the matter, the course is mandatory in the same way maths is and must be taught from first year on. This course would teach students about what kind of relationships they can have and how to develop good relationships during a stressful time in their lives.

They will also learn about developing coping mechanisms in the event of a breakup or other problems.

As a country, we are very cagey when it comes to talking about sex and have long lived with a taboo around the subject.

In recent years, with the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum and therepealing of the Eighth Amendment, we have shown that we are slowly moving away from that, however we still have a long way to go.

In order to reach a level where we can talk about sex openly we need to start teaching it in a sensible and open-minded way from the time students hit puberty and possibly even younger.

Put LGBT books in libraries and challenge stereotypes

Robert Antaine, 18, meets with President Michael D Higgins. Robert found the sex education in school was not relevant to him.
Robert Antaine, 18, meets with President Michael D Higgins. Robert found the sex education in school was not relevant to him.

Robert Antaine, 18, was a trans gay man in an all-girls school. He wants acceptance instilled in children from an early age My experience is a bit unusual. I was a trans gay man in an all-girls school, so anything that was prepped for sex education was just not for me.

In junior cycle, half the classes didn’t even happen — sex education was just not prioritised.

I identify as a trans man. I was assigned female at birth, but I am a trans man. Trans is a descriptor. You could be a trans woman who was assigned a male identity at birth but be a woman no matter your appearance. Trans is short for transgender; it’s different to transitioning.

Transitioning is a process.

I was on Instagram and I saw LGBT things, but I only registered the gay, lesbian and bi part of it. In second year, I met a new friend and they introduced me to the T and something just clicked — I was definitely not a woman throughout my childhood.

My peers have never given me any trouble; I got no stick off anybody in my school; I was science captain, and there were more than 1,000 people in my school.

I would make sure there is literature that is child-friendly and also that there are LGBT books in all libraries, where there is a gay character in a book, just something that normalises it from such a young age.

I didn’t know what gay meant when I was in fifth class. It would have been simple to say: “This is what gay means and it’s not an insult.” That would have been so helpful.

I saw a post on Facebook recently where fourth, fifth, and sixth class students designed what their ideal Pride would be. It was in an Educate Together national school, it was so adorable. It’s good to let people know that being LGBT is not inherently sexual, that holding hands with another man is not sexual, that existing as an LGBT person is not a sexual existence — it’s very sexualised.

We should also explain what the terms mean in basic language; that gay is when a boy likes other boys, or they hold hands, or some people have two daddies and some people have two mammies. Keep it simple.

Or with trans, explain by saying that: “When the baby was born, the doctors said they were a boy or a girl, but the doctor was wrong.” It does need its own focus as you get older, but when you’re young, integrate it into everything. If acceptance is instilled at a young age, there is less need for an in-depth basics 101-type class in sixth year.

I don’t need a 101 on my times tables because that was instilled in me from a young age. You can break down stereotypes at a young age. I use he/him pronouns. A pronoun is what people like to be referred to as. It’s not optional; it’s a core part of someone’s identity.

If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask them discreetly, but if you don’t have the opportunity then use they/them.

I want to be a teacher, I hope it’s all solved by then.

This generation is growing up with issues that were less open in the past

Ciara Fanning: With the passing of the marriage equality referendum, repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and decline in influence of the Catholic Church, sex education needs to reflect these changes.
Ciara Fanning: With the passing of the marriage equality referendum, repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and decline in influence of the Catholic Church, sex education needs to reflect these changes.

Ciara Fanning is president of the Irish Second Level Students Union (ISSU).An ISSU survey showed that almost 90% of students had not received regular sex education.

The current sex education system has not been reformed in 20 or so years, yet the society young people are growing up in now is drastically different to that of their parents and the generations before them.

With the passing of referendums for same-sex marriage, repealing the Eighth Amendment, and the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church, our sex education needs to reflect these societal changes.

RSE is an area of huge importance to the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU), having conducted a survey that showed that 87.5% of students had not received regular sex education.

In this day and age, the topics of consent, sexuality, and contraception are far more open than they were in the past. With the #MeToo movement, wide-reaching conversations about different sexualities and the reality of abortion and contraception methods all becoming fuel for conversation, our education system owes it to its young people to fully equip them to deal with these topics.

This generation of students are growing up with these issues; we have an awareness of them and we deserve a comprehensive sex education that fulfills its purpose and treats students with respect.

The majority of students who filled out the survey ranked consent as the most important aspect of sex ed, yet 72% of people said this was taught terribly.

Even when it comes to a topic one would expect to be a large part of sex education, 78% of people said that they had not been taught how to use contraception.

How can we expect our young people to go into the world without the life skills and the comprehension to do so? The State cannot preach the importance of these issues when they are not equipping young people to deal with them.

In a digital age, sex education is more important than ever, as people get a skewed version of reality from the internet, and expect this to translate into their own sex life.

Lack of consistency and lack of trust can have detrimental effects on sex education

Ellie McLaughlin, 17, is a fifth year student who has always had an honest, open relationship with parents. She said that when her peers feel trusted by their parents they will then open up to them.

There is no consistency really. Sex education is really different in different schools. Some people seem to have great sex education but it depends who your teacher is. There is really no monitoring being done.

I can count all the sex education classes I’ve had on the one hand. There was no consistency. LGBT issues weren’t covered. I’ve such a clear picture in my head of the day we were supposed to be doing trans and a teacher put up a picture of Panti Bliss and said: “This is what a trans woman is”.

I think LGBT and gender identity should be taught from an early age. Consent is super important and should definitely be taught from second level.

Contraception is super important, be that going on the pill or getting an implant. It’s very hard to get all the information.

In regards to porn, lots of people turn towards porn for sex education. There is no conversation around it in a school setting.

The pressure over the pictures is such huge thing, especially with social media. It’s easy to get cornered into it. You know there is a group of peers and in school the worst thing you want to do is stand out. If you don’t send a picture every whisper could be about you, you could be called a prude and that. It’s a culture kind of thing, the whole school knows you didn’t send it.

I think there is more pressure on girls probably, much more common for girls to receive unsolicited pictures when they just open their phone.

A consensual talk needs to be had around this about pressuring people into it.

These conversations happen teenager to teenager, the teacher doesn’t even know the platform that students are on. Teachers aren’t informed enough, they don’t get any formal training in it.

Between boys and girls, it can feel a bit degrading, you can see some of the ways that guys talk about women. It’s a bit invasive, it’s too much.

Sometimes it comes as a shock and hits you by surprise. Some people do stand up, but it’s all laughed off and you end up just pulling a bigger target on yourself. I’ve had friends before who’ve stood up to comments and said: “What are you saying, would you listen to yourself?” Then they get things back like: “you’re craay, you’re a feminazi”.

There are also plenty of lads who have girlfriends and who still talk about women in degrading ways, porn plays into it a lot more than it used to. There is just such easy access and then the amount of younger people seeing it.

Revenge porn is a huge one. It definitely needs to be talked about, teachers don’t seem to know about it.

It’s complicated and the conversation around sex at home varies from person to person. I know people who’ve had no conversations at all with their parents, because they think they get the talk at school.

I would say the majority of parents wouldn’t be aware of what’s going on unless there is a story in the news that spurs the conversation. But that’s being reactive, rather than proactive.

My parents have always just trusted me and been honest with me. They’ll ask: “have you be doing this?” Or they’ll say: “this happens and if there’s an issue you can talk to us”.

It’s never an attack, they give me my space, they’ve never been invasive and they’ve never gone through my phone. That’s a common thing — parents root through all the messages.

Teenagers are annoyed and frustrated at that invasion of trust. They think: “I’ve my phone and I’m 15. I should be able to message my friends without you looking through the phone”, you don’t want your dad reading all the messages about this fella you like.

In terms of deleting, teenagers are using Snapchat and the messages delete in 24 hours anyway. There are snaps that disappear in 10 seconds. The only thing in my saved messages would be things like where we’re going to meet up and at what time.

A lot of our sex education is very scientific and lots of people don’t understand the emotional side of relationships.

You need to be able to identify when you’re not happy in a relationship, when you’re being pressurised into sex. It would just be nice to have a safe space to talk about issues openly, because of lots of people go to the internet to be educated and that education is porn.

A key strategy is to start the conversation early

Sarah Sproule is a mother of three and a sexuality educator who visits schools around Ireland. She runs Sarah emphasises the importance of not intimidating parents into paralysis around the topic of sex education.

FIRST of all, the first point to make when we talk about this issue, is that parents are doing the job at home.

But in an ideal world, parents wouldn’t be doing the lion’s share of the work. The youth club, and the school would be involved too. The expectations placed on parents can be horrendouslyunfair in terms of the job that is before us.

A key thing for parents to confront is their own belief system around sexuality and the stigma that surrounds it. When you have done this, the path is cleared to some degree.

Then there is the issue of: “how do we do this or have this conversation?” For a lot of parents, they’re struggling with deep-seated habits and deep-seated beliefs about what childhood is, whether children have a sexuality, and a belief that sexuality doesn’t manifest until adulthood.

One of the first things I’ll say in a talk is that sexuality happens from the very beginning, from our birth until we die.

We have a developing sexuality. All we need to do is have simple conversations about our bodies, what feels nice in terms of food, exercise, petting an animal — it’s not just sexuality, but a fundamental part of being human is who is allowed to touch our bodies.

A key strategy for parents is to start the conversation about bodies from an early age. Sarah calls this “layering”, where you talk to children about what feels good for their body, be that hot water against their skin, petting their dog or eating a favourite food.

“It’s about slowly layering it, so the older we get then you can talk about more complex issues like porn, consent and abuse. It’s slow and steady work. Trust is built in increments, so is knowledge and so is connection,” said Sarah.

For parents who did not have this knowledge or awareness and now find themselves with teenagers and having to address serious issues such as porn and rape, Sarah suggests an entry point they can try.

“A way into a conversation that feels natural is to say: ‘I learned something yesterday and I’d like to know what you think of it. I was in a workshop and she told me that kids of your age most of them don’t know what rape is’.

“Your teen is going do one of three things, run, look blankly, or in their head say ‘yes I have been wondering about that’. Whatever way the kid reacts, if the kid runs you can bide your time, you mirror their emotion. You can say: ‘I can see how upsetting or embarrassing this is. It’s hard because we’ve never done it before’. As soon as an emotion is labeled, the emotion reduces in intensity,” said Sarah.

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist who works with children and adolescents.

She is also the author of the best-selling 15-Minute Parenting. From her day-to-day work she is keenly aware of the issues that parents and children are now facing when it comes to sex education.

“Sex education has to modernise and take into account the material at our children and young people’s disposal every day, be that pornography via their phones or increasingly dark themes prevalent in so-called teen dramas on TV, ie, 13 reasons why/Euphoria/Sex Education/Riverdale etc.

“In reality topics such as pornography, consent, LGBTQ+ sexual identity, gender versus sexuality and that sex is for pleasure all need to feature strongly in our sex education,” said Ms Fortune.

When it comes to talking to your child, the psychotherapist ’s experience is that when a young person has a question, it generally means they are ready for the answer.

“That does not mean as soon as a child asks what their genitals are that you take a deep breath and do the entire baby-making chat but rather be led by them and their innate curiosity. Be aware of using correct language for body parts and don’t shame their natural body curiosity,” said Ms Fortune.

Similarly to Sarah, the psychotherapist advocates for starting the conversations as early as possible, and then growing the content as your child grows.

She also believes that parents can always buy time if they get asked a difficult question, and instead of flooding their child with information, tell them they will get back to them about the topic.

Ms Fortune also suggests having some stock lines ready for obvious questions and these can be prepared and role-played with a partner.

A key point that the psychotherapist makes is that parents need to separate out their own feelings on topic, from the needs of their children.

“We need to separate out our discomfort delivering the information versus our perception that our children will not cope with the information. The younger we start the easier it is to expand on it. Be playful in how you approach it,” she said.

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