Sex education, or the lack thereof

Surviving the sex ed curriculum in rural Ireland

*TRIGGER WARNING* Article contains references to sexual assault and rape

I think I was around 15 when a woman hired to give us ‘relationship and sex education’ politely informed a classroom full of students that if our parents weren’t married, they didn’t love each other. I remember sitting in my uniform and feeling gross and uncomfortable. It was as if my body and its value were being quantified by this woman who seemed to have learned all she knew of human anatomy from Biblical texts. I remember the exasperation of my classmates when she’d say something particularly medieval. Even at that age, it didn’t sit quite right with me. This reformed Christian woman, who seemed to be doing this seminar in a string of unlucky schools, explained that anyone in our lives who wanted to sleep with us, but not marry us, probably didn’t love us. It was emphasised that sex was our capital, sex was how we could ensnare some gormless male into marrying us, because that was the main reason that people got married anyway, which seemed in direct contradiction of her “marry for love” doctrine. There was very little information offered about what exactly sex was as far as I can remember, though I may have blocked it out as another traumatic secondary school event I refuse to think about.

Luckily, I had other teachers who were godsends when it came to sex education. They answered our questions frankly and with as much confidence as they could muster. But what we learned was dependent on the questions we were willing to ask. In rural Donegal, one of the counties that voted against repealing the eighth amendment and only barely voted for same-sex marriage, there were just some questions people felt uncomfortable asking. I know I did.

“Occasionally, a ‘sound’ teacher would explain what a condom was.”

Some teachers considered it inappropriate to speak about sex or contraception. Their right to refrain from these discussions was respected by the school, even though their choice to do so often interfered with our Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) course. However, there was a noticeable overlap between the teachers who thought sex education was inappropriate with the ones who decided it was appropriate to talk to us about abortion. I wasn’t raised Catholic, and thus was exempt from the religion class in which my close friends were shown an anti-abortion video from the 1980s.  While this blunt and scarring experience was part of the curriculum, normal sex eduaction was deemed far too mature a subject to address. Only last year, my younger brother, a sixth year at the time, was handed a doll of a “life-size fetus” and told by a teacher that he should think about that when deciding how to vote in the abortion referendum. The main form of contraception we were taught about was abstinence. Occasionally, a ‘sound’ teacher would explain what a condom was.

LGBT issues were firmly off the table, something which seems disappointingly common when it comes to sex education in Ireland. I have one friend whose sex education teacher simply refused to answer when asked “how do gay people have sex?”, encouraging the students to ask their parents instead. As a person who wasn’t really questioning my sexuality yet in secondary school, this didn’t affect me all that much, but the homophobia that underpins the already misogynistic and outdated sex education curriculum is hard to deny.

When it came to STDs, what better way to not get diseases from sex than not having sex at all! A reluctance to discuss forms of contraception pretty much ruled out the discussion of safe sex. The Catholic sex education model seems to rely on the age-old assumption that teenagers simply aren’t sexually active. This realistically isn’t the case. The age of consent in Ireland is 17 after all. Blatantly ignoring and denying this fact does nothing to help or protect them; it puts them at risk. I don’t know how many friends I’ve had to inform that it’s necessary to pee after sex, and I only learned that little titbit of sexual knowledge from an American coming-of-age movie that featured a girl being coached by her friends on how to have good sex. The movies and the internet were probably my most thorough sources of sex education. Refusing to educate teenagers about sex is irresponsible, and puts them directly in harms way.

“We need to ask ourselves why we refuse to talk openly about it with each other, especially with young people who are forced to take their first steps into their own sexualities blindly.”

The first time I had an informed discussion about sexual consent, I was in college and this shouldn’t have been the case. Discussing sexual consent is still imperative, even if you’re not having sex yet. Teen discos (whether you were at the GAA disco or the infamous Wezz) were hunting grounds for teenagers in search of that elusive first “shift”. Everyone has a harrowing story from these infamous shin-digs, the ill-thought-out traffic light discos or raucous Halloween parties. Young people are wandering into these overtly sexual environments without any guidelines for how to say yes or no, or even how to spot that somebody else might be trying to saying no.

It’s very easy for Irish schools to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that secondary school students aren’t at least aware of sex. They use this presumption to justify their lack of initiative when it comes to educating them on this topic. This simply isn’t sufficient. People shouldn’t be going to college without learning about what sexual consent is or what safe sex is or without mention of anything related to LGBTQ+ issues and realities. Teenagers are smarter than the education system gives them credit for and we are doing them a disservice by failing to provide them with the necessary tools to educate and protect themselves. It’s time for this country to think long and hard about our views of sex. We need to ask ourselves why we refuse to talk openly about it with each other, especially with young people who are forced to take their first steps into their own sexualities blindly. I was halfway through writing this article when a news story was published on the website of a local Donegal newspaper with the headline “Donegal student was ‘blind drunk’ when two men had sex with her”. Upon reading, the story was detailing an incident of rape. The headline received heavy criticism, and was ultimately amended in a weak shift away from the clear implication that some blame lay with the victim. The headline epitomises the rampant misconceptions in regard to sex and consent in Donegal. More importantly, it highlights the necessity of rectifying these misconceptions.