In December 2018, I spoke at an event in Tralee which celebrated young women in modern Ireland.
More than 250 female students from local schools attended the EmPowerMe event, and I was impressed by their enthusiasm, eloquence, and intelligence.
In the Q&A section, one young woman asked for my opinion on sex education in Ireland; what I would like to change, and what issues I thought should be included in sex-ed programmes in the future.
It was a good question, and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear, one I have many thoughts on.
There was no sex education in my school, no sniggering attempts to shove a condom on a banana.
I am often surprised when I give talks in schools and the students tell me that not much has changed since 2003, when I sat my Leaving Cert.
They tell me the information given to them is still scant, woefully inadequate given the seismic societal changes over the last 16 years. (Indeed, a group of school girls who went to see the stage adaptation of Asking For It, banded together afterwards to write a letter to their principal to demand better sex-ed…)
If I was given the mandate to reform the sex education system in this country, I would devise a programme that would be comprehensive, inclusive, and accessible.
We can’t just focus on reproduction, sexual transmitted infections, and contraception, including termination of unwanted pregnancy, although of course these are all vitally important tenets.
We must also look at gender, gender identity, body image, sexual consent, and pleasure, particularly for young women, dismantling the stigma that still surrounds female sexuality.
It has to be LGBTQI+ friendly, including people of all sexualities and identities. We must teach teenagers to have awareness around porn.
While there are many people out there to want to completely abolish pornography, I’m not sure if that’s realistic.
Not all porn is created equally (there is some excellent feminist porn being created by directors like Erika Lust) and the real issue is that most of the porn being consumed by teenagers is the porn which is free and widely available.
This porn is disturbing in its depiction of women, laced with overt misogyny and violence.
With statistics saying the average child is exposed to pornography at the age of 11, and many much younger than that, we have a duty of care to ensure children understand that this is not what ‘normal’ sex looks like.
Sex education is really about healthy relationships, sexual or otherwise; the importance of respect, consideration.
Maintaining personal boundaries and respecting the right of others to uphold their own.
Currently, schools can allocate up to 400 hours to SPHE (Social, Personal, and Health Education) and RSE (relationships and sexuality education) but this rarely happens.
Moving forward, we need to have specially trained teachers to cover this topic, it needs to be given adequate time in the class schedule, and it must be mandatory in all schools, regardless of religious orientation.
I would argue that a programme such as this should be available from Junior Infants to Leaving Cert, but obviously modified to be age appropriate.
You can explain consent to four-year olds in a non-sexual way (eg: “that child in the playground isn’t allowed to pull your pigtails if you don’t like it”) and giving young children clear information about their bodies can help to prevent, or at least identify, sexual abuse.
The Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill was published in April 2018, and is slowly making its way through the Oireachtas.
It looks promising and it is badly needed, as the current Education Act dates back to 1998.
And yet, as ever when we attempt to have an honest discussion about sex, especially when it pertains to young people, the proposed bill has been met with outrage, opposition, stonewalling.
That kind of inflammatory rhetoric is at best unhelpful, and at worst, dangerous.
The SAVI report in 2003 found that one in five Irish women experienced contact sexual abuse in childhood while one in six men experiences the same.
One in five women experienced sexual assault in adulthood, with one in 10 men experiencing the same.
Over all, one third of all women and men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.
This is an epidemic and it won’t go away on its own. Now is the time for us to be pragmatic, to take definite action to tackle this problem, and a proper sex education system will be a crucial element in doing so.
We have seen over the last year the horrors that can be wreaked when children are exposed to pornography they can’t understand.
It is our duty now to ensure that they are protected, informed, and well educated so that such a horrifying tragedy can never happen again.
‘Herd immunity’ is a type of immunity that happens when we vaccinate a significant portion of the population in order to provide protection for those who have not yet developed immunity.
That is why sex education is important — if we give enough young people sufficient information, we will create an immunity of sort, protecting us all.
We owe it to them to do better and to demand more.
Klaus. If you’re searching for a Christmas movie to watch on Netflix, look no further than Klaus.
This is beautifully animated, funny, clever, and touching.
I recommend you have tissues to hand.
How Will Santa Find Us?
This beautifully illustrated, incredibly moving picture book tells the tale of a family who become homeless at Christmas.
A must buy for any children in your life this year. (Funds go to Focus Ireland)