RSE is something that plagues the Irish Education landscape. Relationships and sex education is not something we are traditionally praised for. I was a lucky one, in that my parents answered every question I had when I had it. So much so, I don’t even remember learning about most things, I always thought I was born with the knowledge. This meant sex was not a dirty, embarrassing topic that was I ashamed of, meaning when in first class when boys who wanted to make girls squirm and say “eww” would ask me “Do you know what sex is?” and I would respond “yes” and they would be disgusted. Game over. It doesn’t upset her.
That doesn’t mean my sex education was perfect or that I grew up knowing everything.
Naturally, I realised that I should be embarrassed about these things, like most young people, and stopped asking questions and blushed and giggled when “the talk” happened in sixth class.
But then something strange happened: I received the exact same “talk” in second year of secondary school. Zero new information. Later it was made clear that was because some people coming from different primary schools never received a RSE talk. Some of these 14-year olds had no formal education on their bodies or sexuality. It became obvious to me that this was a problem when another girl who saw me drop a tampon from my bag screamed and told me to stay away from her because she didn’t want to “catch” my period. While this may not necessarily be the job of a primary or secondary school teacher, the knowledge needs to come from somewhere, and many parents have been raised to view the topic as taboo and shameful.
When I met Grace from Sexual Health West it made sense why she does what she does. She is clearly extremely passionate about the subject.
“Although I know that every educator will think that their subject is the most important, I strongly feel that RSE needs to be prioritised more seriously in Ireland” Grace states, “professionals in the field and young people themselves have consistently said this.
“The knowledge and skills gained in RSE will stand to any person throughout their lives – relationships and sexuality are such integral parts of being human and central to our feelings of happiness, wellbeing and empowerment. I would hope that RSE will become a more ‘built-in’ subject throughout primary and secondary education, so that our young people can learn about this incredibly important topic bit by bit.”
Her excitement for educating, helping and discussing traditionally “difficult topics” with young people meant she was more than happy to talk with me about the WISER programme: “Sexual Health West are a HSE funded NGO Charity – we have been promoting positive sexual health and wellbeing in the west for decades, since being founded in 1987! Our WISER programme has been hugely successful, and we have a great relationship with many schools all over Connaught.” Grace points out how the programme works. “Schools approach us initially – we then send on info about our programme, and our Education Co-ordinator Lorraine books in the school to our calendar”.
The organisation provides more than sexual education in schools. Sexual Health West also regularly offers free rapid HIV testing, and provides free condoms and lube at their office, various events and through a new postal service which has been set up in response to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. Grace also highlights the different groups and settings they have worked with such as people in services for the homeless, the prison system, LGBTIQ+ organisations, Direct Provision, the National Learning Network and more. Sexual Health West is not associated with any Religious organisations and provides judgement-free, accurate information for anyone who needs it!
I was interested to know what sorts of gaps in knowledge appeared among young people who are involved with the programme. “For me, when I started working in the role, I was surprised by the huge differences in knowledge between students of the same age regarding their bodies and how they work!”
Grace says “I was shocked that so many young people did not possess very basic information about their bodies and the proper names for different parts and what they all do! I thought they would already have this accurate information due to how easily it is accessed online, but I never considered the amount of misinformation that they have to navigate through”.
“It was a great learning curve, because now I never assume that young people have this information starting off, so I often bring it right back to basics.” However, these gaps aren’t always predictable, Grace points out: “I have worked with 13-14 year olds with a very good understanding of anatomy, and I have seen 17-18 year olds struggle to label diagrams of sexual organs and genitalia.”
When considering my own RSE, I always believe there is space which should have been filled, regarding gender and stereotyping, and Grace finds these interesting too: “I always find the questions about challenging gender norms and stereotypes the most interesting, and also any questions that give me an insight into what it is like to be a young person today. For instance, if I get questions with new slang terms or pop culture/social media references etc. – I’m like “what does that even mean? I’m old now!”. I am 27, and honestly, I feel like I may as well be an OAP in their eyes. They learn from me, but I definitely learn from them too!” This indicates that sexual education is a topic which is ever changing and morphing, something we, as adults, can continue to learn from.
The structure of the WISER programmes allows for this constant evolvement: “We find that young people get the most benefit out of our WISER workshops when they are delivered in stages – our primary school programme which is called A Little WISER (for 6th class), WISER Junior Cycle and WISER Senior Cycle programmes. When we see students three times like this, they are building on a solid foundation of knowledge about their bodies, relationships, consent, and more relevant topics, rather than it all being delivered in one go!” Grace also points out how important it is that educators also continue to educate themselves, in order to deliver accurate information. “As WISER educators, we continuously update our content and facilitation style to ensure we are delivering comprehensive, factual, progressive, inclusive, empowering, age-appropriate, non-judgemental and sex-positive RSE. I would love to see all RSE held to this standard in Ireland!”
Many people may argue that it is not the job of a school teacher to deliver this type of education, that they haven’t been trained appropriately but Grace and those at Sexual Health West believe this should be addressed: “I also think that anyone who is teaching the topic, teachers or external educators, need to be properly trained and supported, and continue to update their training throughout their career. It is not enough to just ‘know’ the content – pretty much anyone can explain how babies are made or learn off their anatomy!”
Educators creating open and non-judgemental discussions surrounding sexual health and sexuality means that the children they are teaching are less likely to have the same sense of shame and embarrassment older generations once had.
One thing I was shocked to learn when I went to secondary school was that other schools sometimes split up the children into groups of boys and girls. I couldn’t understand this: why wasn’t everyone being taught the same information? Doesn’t this just increase the idea of embarrassment surrounding these things? Grace states that they do not split up the children, unless the school has specifically requested it : “No topic covered in WISER or RSE is exclusive to boys or girls – it is so important for young people to learn not just about their own bodies and experiences but the bodies and experiences of others so that they can empathise with and understand each other. It is also great to see the students have discussion and debate around topics such as consent, gender norms, stereotypes etc.; in my experience, having a mixed group makes for much more lively and productive debate among students!” Grace also points out how dividing students by their perceived gender can be harmful: “Separating the students can create discomfort for transgender and intersex students, or students who do not identify as cisgender – which group will they go in and who makes that decision?”
“Students would generally not be separated for any other subject in school or university, so why this one?”
When we think of “the talk” we think about periods, hair growth, protection and (in the case of my primary school) an extensive length of time spent on wet dreams. Yet there are so many topics children are curious about.
In the second “talk” I received in school, one girl asked “can women orgasm too?” and the teacher told her that wasn’t a question for school, even though we had spent an extensive time discussing the male orgasm (in a girls secondary school).
This always made me believe that pleasure should be an integral part of RSE. Grace agrees: “Pleasure is a key theme that runs throughout our WISER programme. A huge amount of questions are focused on self-pleasure and if masturbating is ‘normal’ for girls, or ‘how much is too much?’ and pleasure during sex – how to achieve it or why it is not happening for them.”
In these schools, the WISER programme often addresses “the orgasm gap,” sexual research history and the lack of focus placed on female bodies, and sexual communication, which Grace believes is key: the importance of trust and comfort between sexual partners to facilitate open and honest conversation about what feels good and what does not. This is important for a number of reasons: it teaches consent, respect and emphasises that sex is good if its consensual and communicative!
“Delivering RSE and solely focusing on risks and consequences is like going for driving lessons and learning only about car crashes. Pleasure needs to be at the heart of RSE – our bodies are designed in such a way that sex can feel incredibly good, and it is the number 1 reason why people all over the world have been having sex since the beginning of time!”
This organisation, and their attitude towards sexual education, is something which I believe Ireland can greatly benefit from. By focusing on what children ask, when they ask it, and why they might be asking it, we can create an atmosphere by which people are safe, happy and not ashamed of their bodies or sexual desires. “Talking about sex and sexuality will not encourage young people to run out and ‘do it’ – research has repeatedly disproved this myth,” Grace says, “Talking about sexual identity will not increase the likeliness of a child identifying as gay or bisexual (I have heard this argument a lot), it will only increase the likeliness of them being comfortable in talking to you about it and being accepting of people of all identities.”
An emphasis on the importance of kindness, pleasure and happiness can only lead to a more comfortable and tolerant society. “It is very difficult to say that any topic is more important, but again, I am very biased!” states Grace. “I think the most important learning points are rooted in showing kindness, empathy and respect towards one another, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, how we look, dress, act…this is something we repeat consistently throughout the WISER programmes. It’s all good to know your facts and stats and body parts but relating to each other with compassion and an open mind as sexual beings and simply as human beings is at the core of any effective RSE programme.”
Caoimhe Battault is the former editor of Sexpress, University Express. She can be found on LinkedIn here and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sexual Health West has recently been renamed and has launched a new website and social media pages! Connect with us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram (@sexualhealthwest) and Twitter (@sexualhealthwst). To learn more about WISER, please go to bewiser.ie.