News Analysis

Sunday 21 September 2014

Ruairi McKiernan: We'd never advocate threesomes, but teens need to know about sex

Published 28/03/2013 | 17:00

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INFORMING young people about drugs doesn't make them run out and get high at the next opportunity. Similarly, informing them about threesomes doesn't mean they will suddenly jump into sexual experimentation that they otherwise hadn't thought about or planned.

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The recent controversy surrounding the SpunOut.ie article on the pros and cons of threesomes (one of the site's 3,000-plus articles) raises the important issue of how or whether sex education is taking place in this country.

The fact that the Health Minister and Taoiseach felt they needed to weigh in on the issue suggests we as a society are still hung up when it comes to sex. It is particularly interesting that the article which stirred the controversy was featured in a newspaper that appears to celebrate titillation on a weekly basis.

Traditionally, issues around sex in Ireland were guided by the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Sex was said to be an act between married people, more for procreation than enjoyment, and certainly not to be talked about or celebrated.

Supposedly celibate men preached to us that contraception was bad, divorce was wrong, masturbation was sinful, and that people attracted to the same sex were either ill or evil.

Because of the unique influence of the church in the foundation of our State, the government and our education system shamefully toed the line. The result has been decades of avoidance, ignorance and repression when it comes to all things sex.

Unmarried mothers or flirtatious young women were isolated and incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries whilst homosexuals simply didn't exist in pure holy Ireland or were criminalised and forced into depression, suicide, marriage or emigration. Others struggled on in relationships lacking in love and intimacy while a culture of abuse and double standards thrived within the church.

They say money makes the world go round but sex is way more powerful. It's at the heart of everything, helping shape relationships, health, happiness and society at all levels.

It's an often invisible force that motivates and drives us at so many levels, not sinful or wrong, but if approached from a place of awareness, it is something that can be beautiful, natural, loving, human, sacred – and fun.

It's understandable that parents and politicians are concerned about what information our young people have access to. They should be concerned, very concerned. Increasingly young people's realities are being shaped by a shallow celebrity, advertising, and media culture that promotes an unhealthy view of body image, success, and sex that leaves young people feeling inadequate and vulnerable to self-harm, eating disorders, depression and unhealthy relationships.

Equally worrying is the fact that a huge number of young people, particularly young males, receive their primary sex education from hard-core pornography.

Their first introduction to the wonderful world of sex is all too often a tragic representation of sex as something where women are objectified, used and abused for male pleasure.

The advent of accessible internet and smartphone availability means many young people have instant access to the world of pornography without any grounding, support or education to contextualise it and let them know that porn doesn't and shouldn't reflect reality.

There's a misguided assumption out there that parents and schools are providing this essential guidance, but sadly this isn't the case.

Many schools, teachers and parents shy away from open discussions around sex simply because of the culture in which they were raised. In many cases the religion of the school is a dominant factor in preventing proper sex education from taking place, education beyond just the birds and the bees.

It is in this vacuum that SpunOut.ie was created and the reason it has emerged against great adversity to become an internationally respected award-winning quality youth health resource used by hundreds of thousands of young people, parents, teachers and indeed politicians.

SpunOut.ie achieves this on minuscule funding, paying very modest salaries, and doing what governments working alone continually fail to do – that is to reach and support young people in relevant, engaging, appealing, and effective ways.

It is for this reason that a unique and effective partnership with the HSE has been a win-win for SpunOut.ie and successive governments over the past eight years.

It is also a reason why short-sighted sensationalist journalism, religious lobbying and reactionary politics shouldn't jeopardise what is an essential service for a generation who have inherited a country that is more than just financially bankrupt.

SpunOut.ie reaches young adults aged 16-25, an age group who are sadly far from sheltered from the dangers and realities of the world. Allowing and trusting them to make informed decisions can help empower them to become fuller, healthier and happier citizens of our beleaguered nation.

The threesome issue presents us with an important opportunity, a chance to grow together as a country and to start talking about sex and all the other things we've been told to stay away from.

Parents, teachers, and youth organisations like SpunOut.ie all have a role to play. Central to this is listening to people, responding to their needs in relevant ways and realising that the world isn't going to collapse once we start to talk about all that has been repressed for so long.

Ruairi McKiernan is founder and former CEO of SpunOut.ie and is a member of the Council of State

Irish Independent

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