Ireland’s Sex Education is failing its students at every turn

Eva O’Beirne examines Ireland’s failing sex education system and the ramifications of sexual ignorance

When it comes to sex education, I have always taken any advice given to me with a pinch of salt. A built-in skepticism, or perhaps even a hereditary form of Catholic guilt, has continuously plagued me whenever I had a Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) or Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) class. As a result, I, like many other Irish students, frequently turned to the internet to do my own research on subjects like consent, how IUDs work, and on LGBTQ+ history. But the internet shouldn’t have to be my first port of call, or anyone’s frankly when it comes to learning about sexual health. 

For too long, Ireland has been backward about sex, sexuality, and sexual health. We may think that as a nation our views are progressive, but our fear of unspoken taboos reared its head again when the ASAI banned the Tampax Tampons and Tea advertisement because of the 84 complaints made about the “sexual nature” of the advert. An RTÉ article following the ASAI’s ruling reported that “over 80% of the complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland about an advertisement for a brand of tampons were from women”. By focussing on the proportion of complaints that came from women, the media discussion overlooked the thousands of people who underlined the helpfulness of the advertisement in question. RTÉ unknowingly underlined a problem that Irish people face: that anything to do with sexual health is seen as taboo and should not be discussed. Though attempting to change the views held by the past generation may be a tall order, we should not let this fact hinder the education of the next one. Ireland’s sex education fails its students at every turn and it appears as if the problem is only getting worse.

The concept of pleasure is forbidden and unheard of — the idea of female pleasure even more so.

Sex education in Ireland is taught as something that is simply mechanical. It has a function — one function according to our textbooks and worksheets. Yes, we are taught the steps of how to have [heterosexual] sex, but we are never told why. The concept of pleasure is forbidden and unheard of — the idea of female pleasure even more so. In HSE programs like “Busy Bodies”, students learn about wet dreams, male ejaculation, and male masturbation, but the bare minimum about female pleasure. It isn’t until coming to college that most Irish students start to learn about how consent really works and that sex shouldn’t just revolve around whether the man is deriving pleasure or not. Moreover, many Irish women have a built-in setting of shame surrounding being sexual. Barriers exist which prevent women from accessing contraception and medication for common ailments like thrush and UTIs. Women often experience embarrassment when dealing with sexual health and this can lead to women neglecting their health because they haven’t been educated on what is happening to their body.

Echoes of sentiments pushed by the late Archbishop McQuaid are still felt today. Some of us can distinctly remember being taken into a separate classroom with other female students in primary school to learn about “changes to our bodies”. When you’re nine or ten years old and you don’t really understand what these adults are telling you, talking about intimate topics is embarrassing. We were told not to talk to anyone about what was said to us, causing a sense of shame that began at 10 years old and has continued to pop up throughout my life. It’s the hiding of tampons or pads up my sleeves when walking through the library. It’s the constant fear of having blood on my clothes and the anxiety of not having enough pads in my bag. 

This Tampax advert was not revolutionary nor was it unacceptable.

No one should feel so much shame with regard to a bodily function; buying tampons should be as natural as buying deodorant. On campus, there is no free supply of tampons or pads yet there are jars and dispensers of condoms (male condoms I might add). Why is this? There is a disregard towards what women need, from sanitary products to dental dams. This Tampax advert was not revolutionary nor was it unacceptable. It was an ad that showed what many people hadn’t learned about before: how to safely use a tampon. Yet, the ASAI ruled that it was offensive.

There are massive gaps in Ireland’s sex education and still, this country pretends we can continue to function within this Catholicism-permeated system. There is a cluelessness on how to approach gender and sexuality. There is an ignorance towards how to dismantle typical gender roles and toxic masculinity. Single-sex schools are still the norm and it is difficult to monitor the differences in education received by those in same-sex and co-ed educations. Ireland’s sex education scheme for schools was only introduced in the mid-1990s, with official documentation saying: “Sex is a gift, a most sacred act, and full sexual intimacy belongs in a totally adult relationship where there is equal trust, respect, acceptance, and understanding for both partners – as in marriage.” This quote becomes even more disturbing when one realises that the last mother and baby home in Ireland closed just 27 years ago, in 1993. 

The issue of sex education hits hard for me personally as I went to an all-girls Catholic secondary school that used to be run by a convent. Religion was core to the school’s identity to the point where LGBTQ+ education didn’t exist, let alone opinions on the LGBTQ+ community. Discussions on the marriage referendum were effectively banned — naturally, so was the discussion around Repeal the 8th. If you were LGBTQ+, it was recommended you keep your head down until you left secondary school. Sexualities other than heterosexuality were acknowledged but never explained. I had no idea what non-binary meant until I was around 18 years old. In most Irish schools, there is a reluctance to understand anything that isn’t cisgender or heterosexual. It is not unreasonable to expect an education that allows students to grow up to be fully-rounded individuals. Did I get this education? No. In this country, we barely get instructed on how to put a tampon in. 

“Abstinence is still mentioned as the most effective form of contraception across a lot of RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) programs and biology textbooks.”

Abstinence is still mentioned as the most effective form of contraception across a lot of RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) programs and biology textbooks. In fact, no school is obliged to follow any standard RSE program, instead, it can simply be taught “within the ethos of the school”. When it comes to accessing contraception, there is still a stigma around admitting the reason one might be on the pill. Alongside the shame associated with sexual activity, women in Ireland have learned to explain their “unusual period symptoms” or their “irregular cycle” in lieu of admitting to being sexually active. 

According to research carried out among 2,150 students by the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) SMART Consent team, just 15% of women and 20% of men admitted to being content with their sex education at school. With such dissatisfaction around RSE, one starts to question whether any of us are educated at all. Perhaps the most telling indications of the RSE’s failure to educate Irish students are the various accounts of misinformation. The most horrifying story came from a male student who went to an all-boys school: “The religion teacher claimed that looking at calendars and estimating when ovulation occurred was more useful than using a condom.” Women, on the other hand, underlined a complete disregard for female pleasure, with one person adding, “I didn’t even know the clitoris existed, let alone where it was!”

On-Campus Issues

Sex education shouldn’t end in secondary school. There is a desperate need for sex education in college as well as on a national scale. In June, RTÉ put out an article with the headline: “Why are so many college students not reporting sexual assault?”. My immediate response to this was, “because nothing would be done”. There is no system on campus, at least no obvious one, that directly helps sexual assault victims. When one looks at the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) website, the following instructions are given: “To make an official report against another member of the TCD college community you will need to log it with the Junior Dean. If you need information or advice on this process you can contact your tutor, the SU Welfare Officer, or the GSU Vice President.” 

In February of this year, Trinity along with other colleges such as NUI Galway and Maynooth University signed up to an online system that allows students to anonymously report experiences of sexual assault. Funded by the Department of Education, the system, which is expected to be up and running by the start of the next academic year, is being developed by Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education in Ireland in conjunction with nine colleges. It will provide students with the means to anonymously report sexual misconduct in the hope that the data provided from the reporting system will provide a broader picture of sexual violence on college campuses. As it stands, Trinity has no policy in place to address issues of sexual assault within the college. TCDSU’s website offers this line of information for victims of sexual violence on campus: “If you have been sexually assaulted it’s important to contact your support services in college and/or the police.”

With these current measures, there is no guarantee of support and there is no gentle way of approaching the process of reporting sexual assault. The SU expects victims to be willing to discuss their trauma with a distant officer, a person they have possibly never even heard of. During Freshers week, condoms are handed out by the bucket-load, but no one thinks to talk about what students should do if they are assaulted, especially those who find themselves in a new city with a limited number of contacts, unsure of who to approach.  The SU website cites the Welfare Office or emergency appointments with the counselling service, but do these guarantee any real support? The counselling service has notoriously long waiting lists, and emergency appointments are hard to come by. For many, these resources are difficult to access. 

The Welfare team should establish a one on one relationship with all Freshers within the first month of college. Establishing a comfortable connection between students and student officers could be a great way to begin combatting this major problem. According to the Sexual Experiences Survey, over half of first year students had been sexually harassed since starting university, with percentages increasing as time progressed. In Trinity itself, there is no way to even estimate how much of a problem sexual assault is for the student body. It may be time for the Welfare Office to take a long hard look at itself and implement real change. 

Ireland’s Performance Internationally

The launch of a campaign in New Zealand to combat underage persons watching porn is lightyears away from anything the Irish government could think of.

One may wonder how Ireland compares on the world stage in regards to sex education. The launch of a campaign in New Zealand to combat underage persons watching porn is lightyears away from anything the Irish government could think of. In the latest video for the Keep It Real Online series, which has launched other advertisements that deal with online safety, actors pretending to be porn stars tell a mother that her son has been watching their clips “on his laptop, iPad, Playstation, his phone, your phone, Smart TV projector… ”, adding that as porn stars, they don’t talk about consent on screen and instead “just get straight to it”. 

Yes, we’ve had the Johnny’s Got You Covered campaign in 2012, but have we had any significant developments in sexual health awareness since? In 2014, Ireland was the fourth highest consumer of porn per capita in the world according to PornHub statistics. A survey conducted by NUI Galway in 2018 indicated that more than 53% of boys in Ireland first watched porn before the age of 13, while 23% of girls first encountered pornography between the ages of 10 and 13. Out of the 1934 students surveyed, 36% of male students stated that porn had influenced the way they interacted with their partner about sex, with 29% stating they believed it influenced how people behave during sex. About a quarter of women surveyed said porn had influenced how they interact with their partner, while 24% said it influenced how people behave during sex. 

Particularly with the neglect of LGBTQ+ education in Ireland, it is no wonder why students may turn to porn in order to educate themselves, which can lead to misunderstandings, misconceptions, and muddled thoughts as to how they are supposed to act when they are intimate. While it is easy for us to believe that porn is the ideal standard, porn isn’t sex. Porn is preformative, like how sex is portrayed in movies. It can tear your confidence apart if your body does not look like what is seen on the screen. Ireland’s sex education doesn’t try to normalise all bodies; in fact, it doesn’t even try to tackle this problem felt by it’s students. 

“With the new minister being pro-life, one wonders how progressive sex education will be in the next few years of government.”

It was the appointment of Norma Foley as the new Minister of Education that prompted the desire to write this piece. With the new minister being pro-life, one wonders how progressive sex education will be in the next few years of government. As new abortion legislation is being reviewed by the government, those who campaigned to repeal the eighth amendment may face a harsh wake-up call due to the number of pro-life ministers now in the Government cabinet. Ireland, at one point, seemed to be taking large leaps forward with regard to sexual progress, breaking free of its religious shackles. Now, we could be pulled back into a time where declarations similar to those made by Archbishop McQuaid about the “moral dangers” regarding tampons could be a common opinion. 

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Sex and Relationships Editor and Co-Podcast Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of History and Economics.