News Education

Monday 24 June 2019

Honest conversation can empower children who are confused about sex

Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor (centre) with Dr Pádraid MacNeela, Dr Siobhán O’Higgins, Kate Dawson and Dr Charlotte McIvor of the Smart Consent Team. Picture: Maxwells
Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor (centre) with Dr Pádraid MacNeela, Dr Siobhán O’Higgins, Kate Dawson and Dr Charlotte McIvor of the Smart Consent Team. Picture: Maxwells
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

A recent finding that more than half (53pc) of boys first saw porn between the ages of 10 and 13, and others even earlier, gives a good idea of when childhood innocence on matters of sex comes to an end. The figure for 10 to 13-year-old girls was 23pc, but they catch up quickly.

They are, says Dr Siobhan O'Higgins, of NUI Galway's School of Psychology, "curious and confused" and it is a time when they are searching for answers.

So, shocking though some parents may find it, she says if children of those ages have questions about issues such as oral sex or masturbation then they should be having them with a trusted adult.

"This is a new generation," says Dr O'Higgins. Puberty is starting earlier, so hormones are very active. By the age of 10-11, many children have had a smartphone for a few years, with access to all sorts of content, they have watched "sexy" music videos, because that is the nature of a lot of music videos.

Dr O'Higgins is one of the authors of the report on sexual consent, published by NUI Galway earlier this week, which painted a worrying picture about most college students not being well prepared for managing the sexual decision-making scenarios likely to arise when they get to college.

It found they were generally dissatisfied with the sex education they got in school, that sexual harassment is a big problem in college and that a lack of understanding about how alcohol - for which the Irish have a fondness - can cloud perceptions around sexual consent.

With a school sex education programme that dates back 20 years, and many teachers uncomfortable or unwilling even to deliver the basics, it is little wonder that 18 to 19-year-olds are leaving school badly equipped to navigate the natural, but often tricky, world of relationships and sex.

A review of sex education at both primary and post-primary level is now under way, with a big focus on consent.

Dr O'Higgins has a lot of experience of talking about these issues with 10 to 12-year-olds, as well as teenagers, through her  work with the West of Ireland Sex Education Resource (WISER) programme, an initiative of the voluntary organisation,  Aids West, partially funded by the HSE in the West, which is available to schools at both primary (fifth and sixth class) and post-primary level.

The initiative to invite WISER in may come from parents, or the school itself and, at primary level, it meets parents first "to discuss what they think is appropriate for their children to learn about".

Then, at the workshops "we are led by the pupils. If we don't answer their questions, they will find the answer on the internet.

"They are aware of sex, but they are confused and curious."

The terrain covered will depend on the questions and how many workshops they have, but may include topics such as puberty, how the body works, proper names of body parts, 'what goes where', conception, contraception, sexuality, orientation, masturbation, pornography and what it is like to be a teenager.

At the end of a workshop, the children put an anonymous question into a hat and the questions and answers are sent to parents before the next session, "so they know what we are talking about and they can continue the conversation, if they want to".

She says some questions may be about "blow jobs" and a parent could choose to say to their child "I hear you had RSE (relationships and sex education) and were talking about oral sex. How do you feel about that?"

Dr O'Higgins says open and honest conversations about relationships and sex is where the groundwork is laid for the decision-making later on. At its heart, she says, it is about "being able to form a meaningful relationship with another human being, about trust, about knowing when it is OK to go further and understanding about not being pushed, as you grow into a sexual being. If you talk to people before they are put into a situation, and discuss 'what would I do', and four years later are in that situation, they are empowered".

Irish Independent

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