What sex education didn’t teach me

Kerry O’Sullivan unpacks the failures of her Sex-Ed

I still remember sitting there at the ripe old age of eleven, hyper screams and laughter reverberating around a dingy little classroom; the very first time we got “The Talk”, the infamous and nerve-wracking discovery of what scary things were about to happen to us. My vaguely catholic school had deemed biological facts too inappropriate for our teacher to teach us himself, and so they had recruited a lay person employed by the Catholic church, who came in with terrifying diagrams of our genitals and a skirt down to her ankles. She had a box where we could put anonymous questions, that she pulled out and decided were too inappropriate for the class to hear. A special mention to a question I asked about tampons that got entirely shot down and balled up tightly, only to be nuked in the bin. Boys shouted out words they had heard on TV and in songs, eagerly searching for definitions of things their mothers told them they would tell them when they were older. It was like the sex education in Mean Girls (“if you have sex you will get pregnant and die”) and culminated in the eleven year old boys being sent out to play football while the girls were told the bare minumum they needed to know about their ‘monthly friend’ in hushed whispers. 

Secondary school had much the same impact as primary school, except this time my school wasn’t co-ed, so the misogyny of the sex education curriculum really reared its ugly head. It didn’t much help that our sex education was given in religion class, so it really was the bare minimum about what relationships were (not forgetting that the only truly important one was with God). After that, it really depended on what particular questionable narrative your teacher was into. In the early years, it was endless STI flowcharts and hour-long conversations about pubic lice. STIs were discussed as jokes, as if none of us would ever have to worry about them, whilst we were made to match up over the top and unnecessarily graphic symptoms with the name of the STI on centuries-old worksheets. When the time came for my friends and I to actually be confronted with these realities, we had to Google where to get tested and had no idea of tangible and realistic treatment options. For all we knew, we could die of herpes at any moment. Everything was taught to us as if it were a life or death situation, and always with the overtones of guilt and shame. I remember vividly that instead of suggesting condoms, a female teacher looked us in the eye and told us that “the only true way to prevent chlamydia is celibacy”. 

In the later years began the cautionary tales of girls who had gone to the Gaeltacht and had sex, “only for her to come back to school and everyone had found out she had sex!” God forbid a seventeen year old girl should not be ashamed of it. We were shown videos of women who had gotten abortions in purgatory for their sins and watched endless videos made by Garda in the early 2000s about online trafficking. The Repeal abortion discussion was a no-go with most teachers, who also conveniently neglected to mention any contraception. Needless to say it was tasteless, never mind entirely useless. I never felt so misunderstood by my school – were they that oblivious to the majority of us having sex already? Or did they just not want to be confronted with that fact, brushing it under the rug and pretending like they had done their duty over the last twelve years of turning us into god-fearing young women prepared to wait for marriage in the twenty-first century? My true sex education came from hurried conversations with friends, a plethora of truly terrible experiences, and unreliable internet searches that only exacerbated my cluelessness. 

There are so many things I wish I could tell my 17 year old self. There is a gaping hole in sex education where consent should be, discussed in black and white across all gendered schools, not just in girls’ schools as a scaremongering tactic. I had to find out the hard way that sexual assault is not your fault, that you can say no to a boy and not have to feel guilty about it. I wish so many of my friends knew that too, that we all didn’t harbour shame for so long about things that are not our fault. Perhaps better sex education in male schools would have meant we never had to learn those lessons in the way that we did. Those particular lessons were learnt not in classrooms but on nights out, in the company of people we thought were our friends.

I wish somewhere, somehow, the curriculum could allow for sex being not just about the act of making a child, that girls can have sex with girls and boys can have sex with boys and your genitals do not dictate your gender. I wish I didn’t have to go out of my way to educate myself of LGBTQIA+ issues when I was in school and that my friends had felt supported and safe and clued in about their own identity. There are countless incredibly important aspects of sexuality left out on purpose, of its fluidity and how it is more than just a couple of labels assigned to you. The SpunOut posters haphazardly stuck up in unused corridors are not enough for the Transgender teenager grappling with their identity, the vague mention of gay sex as if it is a shameful, unfortunate fact is not enough for gay students who deserve to know how to protect themselves just as much as straight students. 

At the end of the day, our sex lives are about pleasure and whatever that means for you. Imagine how differently you would feel about your body if masturbation was normalised and openly discussed in school. Imagine your teenage self not losing your virginity to someone who learnt how to have sex through watching porn. Imagine learning earlier that sex involves much more than penetration and knowing how to put a condom on a banana. And why shouldn’t we admit that is what sex is about? It’s about making yourself and your partner feel good. It’s fun and it’s messy and it is to be enjoyed. Any changes that we want to make in the conversation around sex starts with how we broach the topic with young people at all. If it’s not sex positive, useful, and honest than what exactly is the point in having a half-baked curriculum that doctors the human sexual experience to fit within a Catholic narrative? It’s time we confront the failures of Irish sex education – no one should have to Google how to have sex.

Kerry O'Sullivan

Kerry O'Sullivan is the sex and relationships editor of Trinity News 2020/21 and is a senior fresh student of middle eastern and european languages and cultures.