In my experience, once I’ve told folk that I am a sex educator they tend to share the details of their sexual education – often starting with “wait till you hear what they told me!”. In Ireland, this can be a truly unique experience as our history with RSE has been relatively recent. From the few who received any sexual education, I have been told stories of teachers telling young people; “just don’t do it”, “you don’t want to be the town bike” or “if you masturbate you will grow hair on your hands or go blind” (not true! If it was there would a serious amount of very furry-handed people). A very surprising bit of advice given to young people in my school was; “if you sit in a Jacuzzi you will become pregnant”. These types of myths and scare tactics are quite common, featuring in a lot of peoples’ experience of sexual education in Ireland. They can be quite damaging for young people, especially when trying to teach them factual information about their bodies and sexuality and to destigmatize the fear and shame around sex that Ireland has carried.
Sex education was introduced in Ireland in 1995 under the title of RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education). However, it is up to the school to implement the curriculum, which can be difficult depending on the experience the teacher has with the material, the religious ethos of the school and the time allocated for RSE. In 2018, the National Council of Curriculum Assessment did a national review of the RSE curriculum in Ireland, speaking to parents and young people about RSE. The report that was published in December 2019 found that “approaches to RSE should be grounded in the rights and needs of young people, RSE should adopt a holistic approach and a review of current resources and development of up-to-date resources”.
A quote from one young person rang very true to a statement that was passed on to me by a teacher during my sex-ed class in 2003 which was “Sex…just don’t do it, girls. You don’t want to be that girl”. This young person in 2018 was told this same message; “avoid it at all costs…out of touch with the fact that we are going to be doing it. It’s easy to say don’t do this and don’t do that but that’s not enough” (Sixth-year student, post-primary focus group). It is baffling that students in 2018 are simply told to avoid sex rather than being taught factual, non-judgmental sexuality education.
As a sexuality and relationships educator, there is comprehensive sexuality education resources available that teachers, schools, parents and principals want their young people to receive. But there is a disconnect from what the young people want and what they are receiving in schools. TD Ruth Coppinger said; “The way sex education is taught to young people in schools is not fit for purpose. It is hampered by the religious ethos of schools and is not factual and objective”. As a result of the report, in 2018 TD Coppinger and others launched the Objective Sexual Education Bill which opposed allowing the religious ethos of the school affecting the teaching of RSE. The bill has passed in the first stage of the Dáil and has currently been moved to the Select Committee on Education and Skills. However, when this will be put into action and enforced in schools is unclear.
The notion of schools and parents being able to ‘opt-out’ of their young people receiving sex education is a worldwide issue. In Ireland, there are many statements regarding law and education in our constitution:
“The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”
Parents and schools have the option to opt-out of sex education. The Objective Sex Education Bill does not refer to the parents right to remove their child from RSE classes. It is interesting to think about what would happen if parents or schools become vehemently against teaching young people any of the other subjects on the curriculum. For example, history. Imagine the arguments against history; “If you teach the kids about World War 2 they will want to start World War 3”. Or in maths; “It is the parent’s right to teach their children about trigonometry, not the schools!”
Only in January of this year, the Welsh minister for education Kristy Williams announced that parents will no longer have the right to withdraw their child from classes on sex, relationships and religion. Wales has over 200 Christian faith schools but the announcement has been largely supported with The National Association of Head Teachers Cymru saying that “these subjects were too important to miss.” (Adams, Guardian 2020).
Having a conversation with a young person about sex can be very difficult for parents. I have heard many concerned parents trying to have conversations with their young person only to be met with “SHUT UP MAM!”.
Historically we have not had a long history with openness around our bodies, relationships or sexuality. The report on the review of RSE spoke with parents and most were in favour of RSE. The parents regarded it as a very important part of their children’s education and many parents revealed they struggled with knowing how to approach conversations with their young people. The report also found that many parents would welcome support (for more information on talking about sex with young people please visit bewiser.ie).
There has been a lot of advocation for change and improvement in RSE since my school’s days of teachers telling us the simplest protection was to abstain and abstain only. Being able to teach the WISER programme which is non-biased, factual and non-judgemental sex education is proof of Ireland’s move forward to comprehensive RSE. Giving young people facts and information around sex allows them to make the decision to engage in sexual activity, if and when they are ready. There will always be myths around sexual health and education but hopefully, it won’t be coming from the teachers. It is at this time I must also debunk this myth NO you cannot become pregnant from a Jacuzzi.
Link to the Report on the Review of Relationships and Sexuality Education in RSE in primary and post-primary school: https://ncca.ie/media/4462/report-on-the-review-of-relationships-and-sexuality-education-rse-in-primary-and-post-primary-school.pdf