Sex education should stress importance of a committed relationship
Published 14/03/2014 | 02:30
On 'Morning Ireland' the other day, RTE education correspondent Emma O'Kelly interviewed a number of parents who want to send their children to Educate Together schools. What bothered them most about having to send their children to the local Catholic school was the fact that their children felt like the odd man out whenever they had to leave religion class.
That's understandable and it's why a lot more Catholic schools should be turned into Educate Together schools. However, it occurred to me that no one ever seems to worry about the parents who don't want their children to attend Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) classes.
Parents who wish to do this are commonly portrayed as cranks, and that's on a good day. For that matter, parents who withdraw their children from religion class could also be portrayed as cranks, and worse, if we were so minded.
Meanwhile, the controversy over chastity group Pure in Heart rumbles on. The latest accusation is that they tell pupils that condoms fail one time in six. At face value, this sounds like an absolutely outrageous claim specifically designed to terrify teenagers into abstinence. At face value, it adds weight to demands that Pure in Heart be banned forthwith from every school in the country. But guess what? Properly understood and properly explained, the claim is absolutely true.
Check out, for example, the website for the Centre for Disease Control in the United States.
It has a section on the effectiveness of various types of contraception including condoms. It lists the 'typical failure rate' of each.
It's vital to understand what this means. Every form of contraception has a perfect use failure rate and a typical failure rate.
The first is when a form of contraception is used perfectly every time. The perfect use failure rate of condoms is just 2pc.
But out there in the real world where use is not perfect, the failure rate is a staggering 18pc, which is actually higher than the figure quoted by Pure in Heart.
The Centre for Disease Control explains typical failure rate as "the percent of women who experience an unintended pregnancy within the first year of typical use".
Even the contraceptive pill has a real-world failure rate of 9pc.
So Pure in Heart is absolutely correct to share this information with teenagers so long, of course, as they're explaining it properly. The irresponsible ones are those who are only telling teenagers about the 'perfect use' failure rate of the various forms of contraception.
This is only one reason why sex education is controversial. There are so many things you can tell teenagers, or not tell them, as the case may be.
You may be sharing facts with them, but which facts? A few isolated facts can be extremely misleading, for example, only telling them about the perfect use failure rate of contraceptives.
If teenagers are only being told about the perfect use failure rate and not the real world failure rate, then they are much more likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy at some point in their lives.
On other the hand, if they are encouraged to have sex from within a committed relationship then they will be much more likely to be able to cope with an unwanted pregnancy. They are much more likely to welcome their baby into the world, especially if they are married. Roughly three-quarters of abortions are performed on unmarried women.
Here's another fact I would bet a lot of money almost no teenagers get to hear and ought to hear, namely that women are much more likely than men to regret a one-night stand as a study of almost 2,000 people conducted by Dr Anne Campbell of Durham University discovered.
Or that having multiple sexual partnerships "may lead to substance abuse problems, especially for women". This is from a study called 'The Relationship Between Multiple Sex Partners and Anxiety, Depression, and Substance Dependence Disorders'.
Apart from choosing what facts to tell teenagers, you also have to decide whether you will teach them about sex in a way that imparts values as well.
Do you tell them that consent is all they need to worry about? Or do you tell them they ought to be in love with the person they are having sex with, or that they should be married to the person they are having sex with, which is the message of Pure in Heart?
Parents are going to have very different views on how sex education should be taught, which is why it is incredibly difficult to find a one-size-fits-all approach and it is also why parents have a right to be fully informed by their schools about what their children are being taught about sex and relationships.
Furthermore it is why the decision of parents to withdraw their children from sex education class and do it themselves instead should be respected and supported every bit as much as a decision to withdraw children from religion class.
Personally, I think teenagers should be taught about contraception. But much more importantly, they need to be fully informed about the sort of choices that will make relational and emotional satisfaction in later life more likely and less likely.
This is why sex education absolutely has to be taught from within a values framework that doesn't hesitate to stress the importance of commitment and fidelity. Anything less is a chronic failure to teach our children properly.