Friday 16 March 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Are we failing to equip our young people for a happy, healthy sex life?'

Dr Ciara Kelly
Dr Ciara Kelly
Sex Irish-style often means being uninformed about STIs

Ciara KElly

I consider myself very lucky - I've a radio show on Newstalk that pays me to talk to very interesting people, for an hour every week. I've always felt it's barely work - I enjoy it so much.

By interesting people I mean people like Mary Aiken, the forensic cyber-psychologist on whom Patricia Arquette's character is based in CSI. Or Pat Falvey the Everest mountaineer. Or the woman behind the #TwoWomenTravel Twitter account. I feel very fortunate to have such a gig.

And last week was no exception when I interviewed James Kavanagh, Irish Snapchat sensation and genuinely hilarious bright spark, about sex education - or our lack thereof.

James asked on Snapchat, if sex education in Irish schools had improved since he'd gone through it 10 years ago, and the overwhelming response was NO! He was inundated with young people discussing the fact that sex education remains a fairly sterile, unedifying, albeit mostly factual, experience for teens - as reported by themselves.

Many of them expressed surprise and disbelief that you could get an STI (sexually transmitted infection) from oral sex. Some thought only gay men could contract STIs! Most said the focus of the sex education was on reproduction - when sperm meets egg and ends up in the womb - or uterus to those of us who no longer speak biblically. Few enough seemed to know about the need for STI screening or the fact that many STIs were asymptomatic - so you could have one and not know it.

James himself described how a routine STI screen he'd had revealed he'd contracted syphilis from a previous partner who'd cheated on him - resulting in him having lumbar punctures and other unpleasantries in hospital as part of his treatment. He went on to say that the dearth of knowledge that was out there among the people he was chatting with prompted him to start a Tuesday evening sex education dialogue on his social media platforms that people are flocking to.

But you'd have to wonder at a time when we know the culture of no sex before marriage is all but gone and when STIs are on the rise, whether or not our sex education system is fit for purpose? Certainly most people contacting the show didn't feel they'd been adequately prepared, with lots describing sex education given by nuns with bowls of fruit, for some reason. That may reflect age demographics - one listener said even though he was 46, most of what James was saying was news to him! But the Snapchat generation aren't being taught by nuns and they still feel their education is lacking.

I think you'd have to question whether or not the reason sex education is taught in its current form is due to residual disapproval of young people having sex in the first place. So any talk of pleasure - the real reason people actually have sex - is absent. And in many cases the descriptions of sex are so disagreeably mechanical that if our teens weren't getting fed alternative info from elsewhere - you'd wonder would it not put them off for life - which is maybe half the point.

What's interesting in the week Bishop Eamonn Casey died, was how few complaints we got about discussing sexual health on Sunday morning - attitudes to sex have changed so much in Ireland. But you'd still have to ask whether or not we're failing to equip our young people for a happy, healthy sex life?

Sexual health is as important an area of health as any other. But it tends to become an issue for people at a much younger age than heart disease or cancer, often when they're still relatively immature. So a decent road map on this would be a big help. Areas like consent, infection, risk and, yes, pleasure should all be included. And if you object to that, maybe you should ask yourself why.


Alive and Kicking with Dr Ciara Kelly is moving to 9am on Saturdays on Newstalk from April 1

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