Sex education must reflect our digital era
Teachers have to be equipped with a curriculum that recognises the cyber world, says Carol Hunt
Published 08/09/2013 | 04:00
It was a maths teacher who had the unlucky job of explaining what sex was all about to my class in secondary school. I suspect because the biology teacher was a young beatific-faced nun, thought far too pure to be associated with such a filthy, begrudgingly necessary, part of life. There was a note sent home asking parents if they wished their chaste, though potentially wanton, daughters to receive a once-off individual "sex education" session.
Many parents said yes, though quite a substantial number declined. Those who signed up assumed gratefully that their duty, as regards sex education, would then be done. We kids knew it would be an irrelevance. The 20-minute session consisted of a quick run through the mechanics; an addendum at the end warning us not to get raped – or worse still, pregnant without a husband. Homosexuality was not mentioned. There was nothing about masturbation, STDs, contraception or, God forgive us, abortion. Nothing about intimacy or desire. And it was mortifying for both the teacher and each solitary pupil she spoke to; head down, eyes averted. As well as useless. We had already covered the mechanics of sex in biology class – with our lovely young, enthusiastic, fresh-faced nun. The rest? Well, we picked it up along the way. Or at least most of us did.
Schools have come a long way since then, haven't they? As have parents. We're far more open about the topic of sexual intimacy, and all the messy joys and horrors that lie along the path of young love. Or at least that's what we'd like to believe. It's not true though, is it? There are still far too many schools, and even more parents, who believe that it's somebody else's job to educate children about sex. Or that the kids will pick up what they need as they go along, like we did when we were teenagers.
The problem today, of course, is that kids are most certainly picking up all sorts of information about sex. A recent Unicef Ireland (Sexual Health and Behaviour) report says that children get their information about sex from friends, school, the internet and television – in that order, with a massive 81 per cent of
teens revealing that they never talk to their parents about sex at all.
Other reports and analysis suggest that teens today get more than half of their sexual information from the internet, which usually means pornography: in the main, exploitative, money making, hardcore, often violent, pornography.
As parents, we should know all this by now. God knows we've been hearing about little else but the pornification of our youth recently, particularly in the wake of Slane Girl's trauma and Miley Cyrus's twerking.
And we could be forgiven for wishing that it would all go away, that our kids will just refrain from watching pornography, or, if they come across it "by accident" they will know, instinctively, that it's not real; that the world of business- driven hardcore porn is very different to the world of normal people having ordinary sex lives.
Currently, there's a campaign afoot in the UK (Better Sex Education) calling on David Cameron to convene a group of experts to update the sex education given in secondary schools to "reflect the digital era we live in".
Tory MP Claire Perry, who boasts the weighty title "adviser to the PM on preventing commercialisation and sexualisation of children", is backing it. As is Nick Clegg and organisations like Mumsnet and the National Union of Teachers.
But Michael Gove isn't. Which is a bit of a setback because he's the education secretary. He says that his department had reviewed the matter recently and concluded that "the right thing to do is to trust teachers".
"Trust teachers" to what? Devise a personal curriculum which explains the difference between porn sex and real sex? Explain to teens that what they see on the internet isn't actually how the vast majority of adults – or at least those who don't get paid for it – approach sex? Reassure young girls that expertise in blow-jobs isn't actually a requisite for getting guys to like them?
Does Gove trust teachers to show kids Cindy Gallup's famous Ted Talk about her initiative MakeLoveNotPorn – or recommend that the teens look up this website and others like it – which show real, messy, funny, floppy, farting, loving sex in all its humdrum normality, themselves? Because all the above is necessary – but it's unfair as well as unrealistic to expect, or indeed trust individual teachers, of differing social and religious beliefs, to implement these changes off their own bat.
The same applies here in Ireland. Teachers need to be equipped with an official, compulsory curriculum which incorporates what children need to know in today's cyber-world. Ian Power, communications manager of youth website SpunOut.ie told me: "We have so many pleas from teenagers asking for an improvement in the level of sex education classes. The standard is very inconsistent ... Many complain that they are still just taught the mechanics of sex."
He adds: "It's really important that we talk to teenagers about the realism of sex ... and as regards pornography, making sure people have the maturity and education to understand the difference between fantasy and reality."
However, Power thinks that parents should be the first people to have that conversation, "no matter how uncomfortable it is", with their children.
No arguing with that. Except that we've seen that a whopping 81 per cent just aren't doing it. And while we should do everything possible to persuade, cajole, equip and if need be embarrass parents into talking openly with their children about sex, the State can't exactly go into people's homes and force parents to talk.
And is it fair to leave some children at such a dangerous disadvantage? No, it's not.
Like the UK, we need better sex education in our schools. Unlike the UK, we know that's just not going to happen, don't we? Why? Because this is Ireland. Where the opposition to compulsory, sensible sex education will wreck our heads. Best to just keep quiet. Like we always do.
SpunOut.ie is working on a campaign devised by 20 young people (to be launched on November 12) which highlights the need for respect – "both for yourself and your body, and for the person you are in a sexual relationship with".