With the stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s sensational novel “Asking For It” (2016) currently being staged in the Gaiety Theatre, let’s address the relationship existing between sex and the psyche, particularly when it comes to young Irish students. “Asking For It” documents the fall out and impact of rape, after the fact; how one brutal crime continues to follow its victim, but disgracefully, not its perpetrator. Also emphasised, is the social response of one small town in Cork to said crime. “Asking For It” documents an Ireland which at first appears cold and unsympathetic, but is ultimately ill-informed. Considering that this dramatic enactment is based on our own society, each of us should ask ourselves; What is my relationship with my sex life and my body? Are my sexual behaviours healthy for myself and others? What is influencing me to adopt these behaviours? Do I need to re-evaluate how I see sex?
It is no great revelation that historically Ireland has not had a positive relationship with sex and sex education. The SPHE curriculum in place in schools has remained unchanged since its introduction in 1999, and furthermore, religious schools maintain the right to alter said curriculum according to their ethos. As a result, many incoming 3rd level students in Ireland have received little education on the positive aspects of sex, and LGBTQ+ identity. The curriculum is focused almost exclusively on heterosexual relationships and predominantly preaches the risks and dangers associated with sexual intercourse, such as the transmission of STIs and pregnancy. The range of contraceptive devices presented to students is limited, and abstinence is upheld as the primary way to avoid these aforementioned risks. Is it right for sex to be made out to young people as something to fear? And how does the second-level perspective of sexual health impact young sexually active people, particularly in third-level education?
According to SMART consent report, 63% of male and 71% of female survey participants reported being dissatisfied with the sex education that they received at school, and a vast majority of participants, both male and female, said that they wished they were better informed on sexuality and sexual health. Needless to say, young people entering college and university directly from secondary school are woefully misinformed about sex, placing them in potentially dangerous situations.
A sex education system glorifying abstinence competing alongside alternative self-educations (primarily those gathered from pornography and experimentation), is clearly a recipe for disaster. The holes in the nets of sex education in Ireland allow young people to fall through. Not only is sex education failing Irish students, but it is directly risking their health and wellbeing. Pornography, in particular, misrepresents sexual relationships, and in turn ill-equips some to navigate said relationships.
The SMART report found that “54% of First Year female students reported at least one form of sexual hostility, rising to 64% in Year 2, and 70% among female students in later years.” Sexual hostility in this instance included being exposed to sexually crude jokes which they found offensive, experiencing unwelcome sexual discussions, or otherwise being commented on or alluded to in a sexually inappropriate fashion.
Clearly, young people do not wish to see sex as something emotionless, or something to be feared, and yet, according to sexualwellbeing.ie, ‘Only half of 18-25s who had received sex education reported that they had been given information on sexual feelings, relationships and emotions.’, despite a majority wishing to learn more about ‘moral, social, and emotional issues around sex’. Of course, responsibility to educate the younger generation regarding sex does not fall exclusively on the shoulders of the school system. Considering how little time sexual education is allocated among a busy schedule, and how that slot is shrunk down even further in the senior cycle, ideally it would be parents delivering the majority of a young person’s sexual education. However, the simple fact of the matter is that the majority of parents and adolescents feel great discomfort when attempting to discuss sex. Communication that lacks openness and clarity may be harmful also.
A young person’s understanding of sex will also hinge on their comfort and understanding with themselves. A healthy sense of self is mandatory for a healthy sex life. Looking at peer influence particularly, young people lacking the self-esteem and self-assurance to behave in a manner non-according to their friends’ behaviour. With many young men basing their self-worth on how masculine or ‘macho’ they seem to those around them, seeking help, advice, or reassurance is even more difficult. Girls and women, alternatively, must walk the tight line between appearing as a ‘prude’, or alternatively as a ‘slut’. For both men and women, reputation and social pressure may often inhibit them making better decisions regarding their sexuality.
Our understanding of sex is ultimately our own responsibility. To ensure that we’re engaging in sex that is safe not only physically, but emotionally and mentally, we must take on the responsibility to inform ourselves. GPs, student unions, and great youth organisations such as Spun Out and BeLonG To offer various opportunities for young people to build on the foundation that sexual education offered. Everyone is having sex, everyone is affected by sexual culture, and so it is imperative for us as young people to equip ourselves as best we can.
Eva Earner – Opinion Writer