Wednesday 17 July 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Sex ed in the 80s was a box-ticking exercise for nuns - this generation has a chance for enlightenment'

We girls - 15 and fairly ignorant on the workings of the flesh - were ushered into the geography room to excitedly await the arrival of the Sex Talk Person. A whole morning had been devoted to the talk, which was thrilling. Stock image
We girls - 15 and fairly ignorant on the workings of the flesh - were ushered into the geography room to excitedly await the arrival of the Sex Talk Person. A whole morning had been devoted to the talk, which was thrilling. Stock image
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Ah, sex education.

I remember it well.

The nuns wanted nothing to do with it, back in the day. From memory they faded deliberately into the background on the day the Sex Talk was due to take place.

We girls - 15 and fairly ignorant on the workings of the flesh - were ushered into the geography room to excitedly await the arrival of the Sex Talk Person. A whole morning had been devoted to the talk, which was thrilling.

We had been asked, I recall, to prepare questions for the Person, but most of us failed to come up with any. The last time we'd had anything approaching a sex talk had been in first year, when we watched half a graphic video about childbirth.

I believe the teacher had to turn it off half way because some students complained of nausea. As propaganda for abstinence, it was effective.

So, though we were hoping for better things this time, we still didn't know what we were allowed to ask. We were not sure if some judgy teacher might be listening or might be reported to. And in 1980s Ireland, we all knew well that Catholic school girls were not expected to have any interest in sex.

We were very interested, of course, and on my very first day at secondary school, one of the bolder girls had made herself a firm band of new friends by showing us all a "dirty" magazine. But adults clearly didn't want to know that.

So, never encouraged to ask questions about our bodies, we had nothing to draw on for inspiration.

We were universally mortified by our own menstruation, so discussing sex seemed risible.

Many of us had thus far failed to even hold a conversation with a person of the opposite sex, much less engage in anything more risky.

As for same-sex relationships, this was material for sniggering jokes, not a solemn conversation topic. We were too clueless, in short, to even know what we didn't know.

And thus the Sex Talk proved a total damp squib. The Person was prudish. She arrived equipped with the same anatomical illustrations of men and women that we knew from biology class and which seemed to have no connection to the real world (how did people's anatomies merge, then? She did not explain).

When she finally asked us for questions, she struggled to maintain her composure. Because only the bold girls submitted any and they included such gems as: "Can you get pregnant from a toilet seat?" and "What does frigid mean?"

By lunch we were dazed from the stuffy room and not remotely enlightened. The Person departed, the nuns ticked off the "Sex Talk" box and our ignorance on all matters sexual persisted unscathed.

I bring this ancient history up because today marks an important deadline. It's the last day for members of the public to submit a response online to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) on the future of the Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) programme for schools.

What will emerge from this review promises to be light years beyond what most schools currently offer, and bears no relation at all to what we were given in the 1980s.

Under consideration is how to approach the issue of consent, to address healthy sexual expression, safe use of the internet, pornography and LGBTQ+ matters. The plan is to expand relationship and sex education, delivering it to children sooner and in a manner more attuned to their true needs. Agencies delivering sex education - they are often asked to - will need to be State-approved.

The urgent need for change was highlighted by a report on the matter from the Oireachtas Education Committee, which reported in recent weeks that the present programme (dating back to the 1990s) "does not explicitly acknowledge sexism and inequality; does not deal with the role of the internet, social media, mobile phones or pornography. The programme does not start with young people's lived experiences".

The report also recommended that the Education Act 1998 be "amended or at least reviewed, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled".

There are parents who will be aghast at the notion of discussing pornography, or what it means to be transgender, in schools.

There are schools that will resist. They will say children need to be children and not be exposed to such information.

Their concerns are understandable, perhaps, but not very practical. We are in an age when we hand over smartphones to eight-year-olds (and then proceed to complain about the dangers of the internet they are exposed to).

There are 12-year-old Irish girls sending "nudes" to boys. And there are boys who respond with their own intimate images, or send them to girls unprompted. This is awful to consider but it is reality, and for some it starts at primary school.

Last year NUI Galway asked 2,150 students if they were happy with the sex education they got at school. A full 71pc of women and 63pc of men said they were not.

We have a chance now to enlist our schools to help us with it all. They can help us help our children to be responsible about their sexuality.

They can equip our boys with realistic expectations of sex. They can help us to empower our girls to assert their own sexual desires, to argue against the online messaging that tells them they are objects and vessels for what boys want.

Schools can give this generation tangible advice about sex and relationships that we never got, but that they can use to frame respectful encounters in the future. They can teach them about consent.

They can help our gay and lesbian children to see their orientation respected and acknowledged by their teachers and peers.

Let's not model ourselves on the nuns who retreated from view, who baulked at the reality of teen sexuality. It was pointless then and it's pointless now.

This is an opportunity to empower our children to make sense of the complicated world of sex and relationships we have created for them.

I truly hope we take it.

Irish Independent

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