Why teenagers are dismissing 'out of touch' sex education in Irish schools
Teenage students want a positive approach to sex education in school - one that aims for them to enjoy their sexuality in a way that is safe, consensual, and healthy.
Instead what they get is often negative, focussed on heterosexual relationships, out of touch, and taught by poorly trained, embarrassed teachers, according to a new international study.
Research involving Irish students was among 55 studies that contributed to the findings, published today, by BMJ Open, an online journal of the British Medical Association.
The study is based on the views and experiences of 12-18 year olds in Ireland, UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Sweden, between 1990 and 2015.
Despite the wide geographical reach of the studies, young people's views were remarkably consistent, researchers state.
One theme that emerged was that schools seemed to find it difficult to accept that some students were sexually active.
This, the researchers say, leads to content that is out of touch with the reality of many young people's lives, and a consequent failure to discuss issues that are relevant to them.
"This was evident in what young people perceived as an emphasis on abstinence; moralising; and a failure to acknowledge the full range of sexual activities they engaged in. Sex education was delivered too late, some students felt."
It also led to a failure to deliver practical information, such as the availability of community health services, what to do if they got pregnant, the pros and cons of different methods of contraception, or the emotions that might accompany sexual relationships, the report states.
The second main theme was that schools failed to recognise the distinctive and challenging nature of sex and relationship education, generally preferring to approach it in exactly the same way as other subjects.
Researchers noted challenges such as that "in mixed sex classes young men feared humiliation if they weren't sexually experienced and said they were often disruptive to mask their anxieties, while their female class mates felt harassed and judged by them."
Young people also criticised the overly 'scientific' approach to sex, which ignored pleasure and desire, and they felt that sex was often presented as a 'problem' to be managed.
Stereotyping was also common, with women depicted as passive, men as predatory, and little or no discussion of gay, bisexual, or transgender sex. Young people also disliked having their teachers deliver sex and relationship education, not only because they felt teachers were poorly trained and too embarrassed, but also because of the potential for this to disrupt teacher-pupil relationships and breach boundaries.
Researchers say that schools should acknowledge that sex is a special subject with unique challenges, as well as the fact and range of young people's sexual activity, otherwise opportunities for safeguarding and improving their sexual health will be reduced.
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