First ever Irish university taught course on sexuality and sexual health education will begin in September

Dr Denise Proudfoot and Dr Mel Duffy.

Áilín Quinlan reports on two new DCU courses — on sexuality and sexual health, and on relationships and sexuality for people with intellectual disability

The first ever Irish university taught course on sexuality and sexual health education will begin in September at Dublin City University. Running parallel to that programme will be another first — this autumn, DCU will also offer a taught course on relationships and sexuality for people with intellectual disability.

In a country where sex, sexual relationships, and even sexual health has traditionally been taboo, the initiative by Dublin City University is a visionary one, and it has attracted strong social media interest within days of the launch of both courses.

The graduate certificate in sexuality and sexual health education is the first ever taught course of its kind — that is, one that is not studied through research. It is aimed at anybody dealing with young people and the issues around sexuality — youth workers, community workers, social workers, people working in the public health services such as doctors and nurses, non-governmental organisations in the field, and youth groups such as Foróige.

“Some organisations have their own programmes on sexuality but, as far as I could establish, there are no actual training programmes offering evidence-based practise and up-to-date knowledge in the area of sex and sexual health education,” says Dr Mel Duffy, lecturer in Sociology and Sexuality Studies and chair of the master’s degree programme in sexuality studies at the university.

It’s about enabling adults — teachers, mentors, youth workers — to be able to talk, and listen, to young people, and enable them to learn.

First ever Irish university taught course on sexuality and sexual health education will begin in September

The idea for both courses originated in discussions with students who were taking the university’s master’s degree course in sexuality studies, explains Dr Duffy, who is also chair of both the new programmes.

“When we talked about the education the students had, they reported having had very minimal sexual education at second level,” she reports.

This, she says, was the seed: “It created the notion that we need to do something which enables people who teach at second level to give them the skillset to implement the RSE Programme.”

Recent research, she points out, has shown that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies remain significant public health issues and that embarrassment about discussing sex, sexuality and contraception are a challenge when delivering education and information. On top of this, barriers still exist in relation to open communication around sexual identity and sex, particularly when parents and teachers are communicating to children and young people.

In response to all of this, Dublin City University devised the graduate certificate programme in sexuality and sexual health education in conjunction with the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).

“This programme is the first of its kind in Ireland and provides an integrated and best-practice approach to sexual health within a quality assured framework at a third level institution” said IFPA training and development manager, Anita Ghafoor-Butt.

Sex and sex education is always a controversial topic — whether about the increasingly fraught issue of consent, to the growing concern about the impact on young people of instant access to graphic sexual acts and hard-core pornography:

“There is a pressure on people now to look sexual and to participate in behaviour that, if they were in a position to make choices, they would not engage in,” Dr Duffy observes.

“It’s very much about enabling young people to make decisions they are happy with — if they decide to participate in something, that they are happy to do it, but if they decide not to engage, that they are able to say no and live with the pressure that others may put on them.” “The course will look at how we learn about sex and sexuality as teachers. It will look at the history and the theories that underpin our way of thinking, the history of sexuality and the language we use. Students will have to think about how to apply it in the settings in which they later find themselves.

“In teaching about the pedagogy of sexual and sexual health, we have to enable people to be open and be able to answer questions. Our society has changed enormously in the last number of decades, but significant work still remains with regard to discussing our sexual health, sexual identity and gender identity in an open and transparent manner.”

First ever Irish university taught course on sexuality and sexual health education will begin in September

Research has shown, she says, that embarrassment is still a very big factor when it comes to discussing sex and sexuality.

“This course will approach these topics free from stigma or bias, delivering up-to-date and evidence based content. It is about providing the knowledge.” It’s expected that the one-year programme, which begins in September with 25 student places, will be of significant interest to professionals working in this field, and, she says, “will provide support to those who will have to deal with these topics, in any capacity, whether it is in a school, home or work setting.”

The sexual health element of the course is significant. Studies have found that more than 35% of women have experienced an unplanned pregnancy and that the highest rate of STIs was among young people under the age of 25 and among men who have sex with men.

The research shows that early school leavers, young people in care or aftercare, people with disabilities or mental health problems, young adults and LGBT people are most at risk of experiencing negative sexual health outcomes.

Denise Proudfoot, a lecturer in Nursing at DCU with a strong research interest in sexual health with be teaching in this area:

“I will be focusing on sexual health and sexual health promotion. What we’re trying to do is equip participants such as teachers, nurses, and GPs, with the skills in talking about sexual health with people across the lifespan.

“It’s about helping people to be more comfortable in tacking issues with clients and patients down the line,” Ms Proudfoot explains.

Sex and sexual health are quite sensitive topics, she says, so it’s important to equip professional workers with the skills to respond effectively to these issues in whatever context they may arise:

“The course will deal with everything from STI’s, to contraception and cervical smears.”

In parallel to this programme, DCU will also offer the first Irish university-taught relationship and sexuality course for people with intellectual disabilities, the Graduate Certificate in Relationships and Sexuality Education for People with Intellectual Disability.

Recent research, says Dr Duffy, has identified people with intellectual disabilities as a “vulnerable group” and warned that “negative attitudes” and a “lack of specialised care to support participation in decision-making can compromise the level of sexual health support received.”

Under existing legislation, sexual relationships for people with intellectual disabilities are complicated by legal and technical issues surrounding the capacity to consent to both medical treatment and sexual intercourse. The idea of this new course, she says, is to enable those who work with people with intellectual disability (ID) to answer questions:

“People with intellectual disability grow up and become teenagers and adults. They need to be allowed to live their lives — and they must be enabled to do so.

“We must look at how that happens,” she says, adding that students will learn how to deal with whatever issues arise: “A lot of us don’t see people with intellectual disability as sexual beings who need intimacy, and this course is about teaching the people who work with them to acknowledge their full humanity.”

The course aims to provide students with the knowledge to assist people with ID to make informed decisions about their sexual health, intimacy, relationships and friendships.

“It’s about knowledge and choice and ensuring people with ID receive this knowledge and support through sexual health educators,” says Dr Duffy, adding that it would train a generation of educators in sexuality and sexual health while advocating for the creation, where necessary, of social policy surrounding the issue of sexual health and intimate relationships for people with ID.

“The accredited programme will be of significant interest to people working in child and/or adolescent services, sexuality/pastoral education at primary, secondary or tertiary levels, healthcare professionals and service providers in healthcare environments.

“Prospective students require a second class honours or Level 8 degree. For those who do not have a second-class honours degree, experience working in appropriate fields is taken into account.”

For more information, see www.dcu.ie and www.ifpa.ie.


Lifestyle

Bless me readers, I have sinned. This week, we had more than a few visitors around, some water was wasted in the back garden and I was judgmental about my friends’ parenting style.Learner Dad: The highlight was when my daughter roared, ‘this is just like being on holidays’

Wearing gloves when out in public has become more prevalent and so has pulling them on in the garden during lockdown, writes Ray RyanIreland's growing love for gardening

Of all the times when Connell comes to Marianne’s rescue, the moment when he finally sticks it to her brother Alan is the one I’ve been looking forward to the most.Normal People recap: A grand finale with pocket rockets and swoonsome kisses

Dublin songstress, Imelda May.Imelda May returns with spoken word album Slip Of The Tongue

More From The Irish Examiner