Saturday 30 July 2016

School sex education must be comprehensive and regulated

Promoting abstinence-only sex education without a proper balance is a dangerous cop-out

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

Sex education is a must for the young
Sex education is a must for the young

The spokesperson from the Pure in Heart group said that all the information presented was "based upon medical evidence, up-to-date statistics and facts". Well, Holy God, as the late Mick Lally might say. Because according to reports from children who have heard the presentations, they were informed that self-gratification (masturbation to you and me) can lead to depression, the use of contraception doesn't honour your partner's fertility – "there is no condom for the heart" – and watching pornography is linked to serial killing.

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Sounds like scare-mongering? But hang on, before we start getting all self-righteous and liberal about it – what if they're right?

Because, if you spent all day, every day, masturbating until your genitals hurt and your social life had disappeared, that wouldn't be terrific for your mental health, would it? (It makes a change from the old admonition from the Christian Brothers that masturbation would make you go blind or cause your IQ to drop – and yes, they had "medical evidence" for those "facts" also.) And perhaps, if you were a little psychotic to begin with, and became addicted to violent pornography, it may give you murderous ideas you might act out. So, on these issues, if we take the extremes, Pure in Heart can be said to have a point, albeit of the "slippery slope" variety.

I'm trying to think of a reason for its claim that "the use of contraception doesn't honour your partner's fertility" but apart from the "every sperm is sacred" motto from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, I can't come up with one. Sorry. Will try harder.

But seriously, last week we heard news that the young, ultra-Catholic group Pure in Heart (it shares an address with Catholic lobby group Iona) has been invited into a number of schools across the country to present a "sex and relationships" talk to "promote the true meaning and beauty of human sexuality through practising the virtue of chastity".

And what's wrong with that? In today's world where (as one listener to Today with Sean O'Rourke's programme discussing Brian O'Connell's report on the issue said) kids are "force-fed sex" and there is "too much promiscuous propaganda", what harm can it do if a group of well-meaning religious young people show students that there is a different way to behave and that abstaining from sex until marriage is not an aberration?

As a parent, I can honestly say that I'm terrified of the pressure teens are under today to partake in sexual activity without knowing what they are doing or why they are doing it. I can fully understand why some parents and teachers are tempted to bring in a group of young people to tell them with authority, "Don't do it! It's all wrong!" and warn them of all the dire consequences that will follow if they become sexually active before marriage. It would certainly take the weight of responsibility from my shoulders, as I try to negotiate ways of educating my children to think for themselves, do what they believe is right, have respect for themselves and others, and not be influenced by peer pressure.

"Just don't do it!" I could say. "Don't even think of doing it!" I would add – because even just having sexual thoughts can lead to watching pornography, which can lead to mass murder – and that would be my job done as a parent. Phew. End. Of. Debate.

How great would that be? No fear of them contracting STDs or sleeping around, or getting themselves or someone else pregnant. No worries about them being pressurised into sexual relationships they don't feel ready to have. No danger of them getting drunk on a student night out and letting some obnoxious sexual predator take advantage. No fear of them ending up mentally or emotionally damaged by inappropriate sexual activity. No fear of them coming across deviant pornography on the internet and wondering to themselves, "Dear God, is that what adults actually do? Is that what I'm supposed to do?" No worries at all. Wouldn't it be heavenly?

Except of course that it doesn't work like that. Not in the real world anyway, where study after study after study shows that abstinence-only programmes in schools are extremely harmful. All evidence (and there is a lot) shows that young people who are exposed solely to abstinence-only sex education display the same attitudes and behaviours as those who receive a comprehensive education. The difference is that they are not educated to cope with them. And again, study after study after study shows that comprehensive sex education – which includes information on contraception, sexual behaviour and abstinence – actually raises the age at which teens engage in sexual activity and reduces risky sexual behaviours.

The key word is "comprehensive". Of course Catholic schools are entitled to invite Catholic groups to preach the Catholic line to their students. The problem is that, with the vast majority of schools in this country under the patronage of the Catholic Church, many non-Catholic students are forced to attend one whether they want to or not. As one parent interviewed by Brian O'Connell said: "It's a choice between Catholic school 'A' or Catholic school 'B'."

And even parents who are nominally Catholic would prefer to be informed if their children are to be given sexual talks by ultra-Catholic groups preaching extreme doctrine, in the same way as all parents are entitled to be informed if their children are being given talks in sexual education. The Pure in Heart group said that it recommends consent forms from parents; however, Brian O'Connell said that none of the parents he interviewed had been informed in advance.

What is extremely worrying about this whole affair is that all of the children interviewed said that they had not received any other type of sexual relationship information or education – bar a couple of biology-type classes – in their schools. Just the abstinence-only option. This is not good enough. Promoting abstinence-only education without any type of balance is an easy, lazy, dangerous cop-out by teachers, parents and the Department of Education.

Why is there no regulation of sex education in Irish schools? Why is no one overseeing what our children are being taught? Why are parents not being informed? Why are we still, in the 21st Century, so scared to talk honestly about sex?

Twitter @carolmhunt

Sunday Independent

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