ALISON O'CONNOR: Schools must deliver good and realistic sex education to children

The best way to help our girls and boys is to develop their sexuality in a healthy manner, writes Alison O’Connor

THE two teenage boys of a friend have had more than their homework to do in recent weeks. After school their mother made them sit down and read the daily coverage of the Belfast rape trial. Like everyone else she was appalled by what she has read, but felt that making her sons read all the detail was the best way she has of protecting them in their sexual interactions with girls, now and in the years to come.

As a mother of two girls I found my own thoughts these past weeks lay with the young woman, the manner in which she was questioned, the vulnerability of women to rape, and how to protect my daughters from such horrors in the future.

Having covered court cases in the past I would always have a wariness of making a judgment without having sat through all the evidence. But there is no escaping the sense here of how the odds were stacked against this young woman with the system as it currently operates, enduring as she did eight days in the witness box, questioned, often aggressively, by four different sets of male counsel with literally everything up for grabs from CCTV footage of her touching a particular man’s arm earlier on the night in question, to a laceration in her vagina. The entire awfulness of it all would make you sick to your stomach.

The only bright light is that hopefully, out of the outrage, changes will be made. Is it a daft idea to think such cases should be heard before a specially trained judge, rather than a jury? It seems to be stating the bleeding obvious to say consent and respect were key issues here, and these involve a spectrum that often does not fit the criminal justice system as it exists, with its demands of beyond reasonable doubt.

But back to my friend, the mother of the two boys, who as it happens are beautifully brought up young men and as respectful and kind as any kids I have ever encountered. She was not the only mother of sons I encountered in recent times upset by the trial for similar reasons. They were of course hugely sympathetic to the young woman involved, but also seemed almost at a loss as to how they might protect their boys if a situation was to arise following sexual activity where the girl involved claimed it was not consensual and the boy insisted the opposite.

So much of this case hinged on consent. Imagine if, as part of its aftermath, the IRFU announced it was going to run classes in sexual consent for players and if the GAA and other bodies followed suit? This week Health Minister Simon Harris announced an education and information programme which, crucially, includes a new approach to sex education beginning in primary school through secondary school and third level. The need for good comprehensive sex education kept cropping up at the Citizens Assembly and was included as one of the assembly’s ancillary recommendations. This recommendation was backed by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendent.

For all our new freedoms and casting off the oppressive, prudish yolk of the Catholic Church we are still uptight when it comes to talking about sex, and crucially about consent, to friends or even partners, and children.

How many amongst us are confident that our children are receiving appropriate sex education in schools, over 90% of them controlled by the Catholic Church, even on the basics, let alone on everyday issues they face from a young age such as internet porn available on their mobile phones? Of course the tone is set at home by parents, but it is also crucial for discussions to be held in a group situation, all the better with boys and girls both in a room together in a school, university or a youth or sports club. Imagine the power of a discussion on sexual consent where both genders are fully engaged and have a genuine conversation with a properly trained facilitator? Think how it might counter that toxic masculinity evident in those appalling text messages sent by the men involved in the trial.

But for that to happens there really does need to be a lot of work done in changing attitudes and culture. At present our children learn the basic facts centering on physiology and biology but not about the joy and gender minefield that sex can involve, not to mention the complications that arise when alcohol is introduced to the picture.

Clearly there is a huge difference in culture in our two countries but imagine we had a situation like that which exists in the Netherlands where sex education starts at four, when children discuss their bodies.

“It moves on to respect and attraction at seven and same-sex attraction between eight and nine years of age. Between 10 and 11 years of age they speak about changes during puberty, love, dating and men and women in the media… It is not standardised across the Netherlands but it is exceptionally comprehensive,” Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell told the committee on the Eighth on a day when Department of Education officials outlined how sex education currently operates in our schools.

It was clear many of the committee members were distinctly unimpressed by what they heard on our sex education system as it stands. In contrast to the Netherlands, Ms O’Connell was concerned that the rhythm method of abstinence or the withdrawal method was being taught to a number of Irish children.

In this scenario the ideas of the Catholic Church obviously enough trump the idea of full access to proper sex education. “That means that if the Catholic Church does not approve of the pill, of condoms, of coils or of caps, then children will not learn about the use of these things at an early age,” said Brid Smith TD.

SOCIAL Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy spoke of a Department of Education survey in 2015 that found that 48% of primary schools and 55% of secondary schools had relied to some extent on external agencies for sex education. The people providing these external programmes do not need to have a teaching qualification, and the agencies involved do not need to be regulated. Think about that for a moment.

Change in this area is long overdue. It won’t stop rape and sexual assault but clearly a properly developed sense of what constitutes consent — not just passivity, but clearly registering enthusiasm — would save a lot of hurt and heartache. Mr Harris’s announcements this week are a very good step in the right direction but the Government will have a battle on its hands here to drive through these changes.

The best way to help our girls and boys is to develop their sexuality in a healthy manner.

This would actually help to protect them from bad and dangerous experiences, and crucially unwanted pregnancies. We need to talk to them at home, but our schools also need to deliver good and realistic sex education. In the meantime we are left with that horrible episode in Belfast being used as an educational tool.

The best way to help our girls and boys is to develop their sexuality in a healthy manner

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