The Irish Sex Education system is failing its students. Its shortcomings are vast and the government’s lack of intervention in this programme means that students are leaving schools with a woeful knowledge about sex and sexuality. It is shocking that in today’s society, the education system refuses to keep up with modern views of sexuality and the shifting perceptions and attitudes towards sex.
Many of the issues inherent in the system lie with its failure to provide a set syllabus for Sexual Education in schools. In addition, schools are granted explicit permission to teach RSE within the parameters of the school’s own religious ethos. Evidently, this is concerning for students in a country where the majority of schools fall in line with the predominant Catholic faith. Considering the church’s stance on homosexuality and transgenderism, coupled with their history of opposing pre-marital sex, banning contraceptives and officially opposing women’s right to bodily autonomy, many consider it worrying that the sexual education of young people in Ireland is often being dictated by this institution.
Furthermore, it has been a long-standing tradition of the Church to emphasise the role of the parent in imparting sexual education unto their children. This tradition, in conjunction with the loose curriculum and lack of strict standards set by the government, means that schools often rely on parents to supplement sexual education in the home. In this manner, our system openly discriminates against its pupils by excluding large groups of students from their legal right to education. Family members are consistently relied on by young people as the main source of information for their sexual education.
However, this is problematic with regards students who do not feel comfortable discussing such topics openly with parents or family, or children who do not have access to an open and supportive family network. It is disgraceful that the government leaves its students without the relevant and correct information to be safe, healthy and comfortable in their own sexuality and sexual endeavours.
To endure with this systematic exclusion, in 5th and 6th class, many schools hand over the sexual education of their pupils to Accord, a Catholic agency, that focuses on bodily changes and sex in relation to committed relationships. With these issues being discussed and filtered through a cis heteronormative lens, the education system largely fails to incorporate or account for a huge proportion of the student population. It also fails to recognise shifting attitudes towards sex and how sex can be enjoyed outside of the boundaries of strictly committed relationships.
At its foundation, the current system is exclusive. Very little is taught about asexuality or orientations outside of the heterosexual. The existence of homosexuality and bisexuality is often acknowledged; however, it is often not dealt with in a thorough manner, with none of the semantics of non-heterosexual sex being covered in the majority of Irish Catholic Schools. As a result, entire demographics of students are marginalised by the system as they do not fit into the binary spectrum of what is being taught. This institutional exclusion is unacceptable. It promotes a culture of division and misunderstanding which is only exacerbated as students grow older.
My own experience of sexual education is sadly a common narrative in Irish Catholic schools. We were taught the workings heterosexual sex. We were taught briefly about the orientations of asexuality and homosexuality and were told that if we wanted more information on these topics, we could search for it online. However, we were instructed to do so with the help of a parent, as the material could be deemed ‘inappropriate’ for our age group. Echoing this, there were meagre attempts made to make visible the LGBT+ community in the school by organising ‘Rainbow Day’. However, this day was only to be celebrated by 4th, 5th and 6th years as the principal felt that it would be ‘unsuitable’ for younger years. This pervasive and destructive ideology of ‘unsuitability’ with regards sex and sexual pleasure, particularly in relation to those outside of the spectrum of cis heteronormativity, needs to be put to an end. It forces entire groups to feel marginalised by being marked ‘unsuitable’ by the very institution that is legally obligated to provide them with a thorough and healthy sexual education. This taboo theme that is all too common in the Irish sexual education system is at its least counterproductive and at its worst, destructive.
Furthermore, the system also wholly fails to embrace its subject matter. In my own experience of RSE (taught only from Transition Year), we were taught mostly about friendships and personal identity, with a couple of classes dedicated to sexual education. Within the parameters of the latter classes, we learned about consent and the basics of contraceptives, the teacher reiterating that the only 100% effective form of contraception is abstinence. We received two talks on STDs. It is a similarly dismal story in many secondary schools nationwide. Students are taught the dangers of sex, are taught about its consequences and are subjected to classes that encourage the scaremongering and fear surrounding sexual experience, a culture that has been cultivated in conjunction with the Catholic Church for years. We were taught nothing about the sexual experience, about sexual pleasure or about healthy sexual relationships. The lack of set curriculum and syllabus for sexual education in Ireland means that much to the frustration of teachers and parents, students are leaving schools pitifully unaware of sex and sexuality as something that can be embraced rather than feared.
It is apparent that government intervention is required. Through the instigation and maintenance of a lax system, students are being excluded and marginalised and are taught to fear sexuality by the very material that should be liberating them. If the institution itself shies away from approaching something so natural as sex or sexuality, how then can the same system possibly expect the students, its products, to leave with a healthy and complete understanding of the material?
By Aisling Mac Aree – Features Writer