In a study published yesterday, a sizeable number of young people admit to having one night stands, while a considerable proportion of those surveyed said they had had more than one sexual partner.
However, the majority of young people use a condom, although in many cases where they do not, drink is a factor.
Parents questioned in the report admit that while they do not want their children to become sexually active until they are 18, they are often reluctant to openly discuss safe sex with their children and have a limited knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases.
The research, commissioned by Pfizer Healthcare, was conducted with 12 focus groups comprising six female groups and six male groups, in Dublin, Cork and Galway.
Half the groups of eight people featured 18-year-olds, the other half people aged 19 and 20, while another four groups of parents of children aged 14 to 16 were also surveyed.
Tara Delaney, director of external affairs at Pfizer, said the findings indicated that a new approach to the discussion of sex was needed, both in school and in the home.
“The majority of parents find it a difficult topic to discuss and would rather not discuss it at the age at which it clearly needs to be discussed,” she said.
“Sex education is highly variable, depending on who is teaching it, and some of the respondents say it comes too late in the cycle from an education point of view.”
She said it was now time for sex education to be provided at an earlier age and for a “more open and mature dialogue” on the issue of young people and sex in what is increasingly a more sexualised society.
The research indicates that parents are often not authoritative, “open communicators” when it comes to sex, but instead fall into other categories, such as “silent witness” (where the issue of sex is not discussed), or “blind witness” (where parents view the school as managing the issue).
On the part of young people, some of those questioned in the focus groups said they believed becoming pregnant would be more acceptable than contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
The use of condoms often went hand-in-hand with a fear of becoming pregnant, with the contraction of a STI down the list of considerations.
The report quotes the chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, Niall Behan, as suggesting Ireland follow countries such as the Netherlands in discussing sex more openly and at a younger age with children.
Aoife Price, welfare officer with the Irish Secondary Schools Union, said: “There is a lot of pressure on young people to have sex in order to fit in. If there was proper sex education, young people could learn that they do not have to have sex if they are not ready for it.”