Wednesday 18 September 2019

Sophie Donaldson: 'Our children must learn the facts of life and sex'

School sex education should move out of the past and equip pupils for the real world, writes Sophie Donaldson

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

Anybody with school-age children is likely to be familiar with the quagmire of passive aggression and anxiety that is the parents' WhatsApp group.

When the politics of a nativity play are enough to set the thread alight, you could only imagine the reaction to children being taught a subject using decades-old language and theory. Imagine the horror if it was discovered Johnny was being taught maths with an abacus.

It would be ridiculous and parents would rightly be livid. However, this is not entirely a hypothetical, because it is happening in schools around the country when it comes to one particular subject.

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Sex education has always been inadequate at best, non-existent at worst, in Ireland and elsewhere. This year, the UK's Department of Education unveiled "bold new plans" to update a sex education curriculum that hadn't been adjusted in nearly 20 years. Last month, Scotland made greater strides by becoming the first country to fully integrate teachings about lesbian, gay and transgender relationships in its schools' curriculums. And it seems change is afoot here, too.

Last week, the Irish Independent revealed details from a draft report from the Oireachtas Education Committee that calls for an overhaul of sex education in Irish schools. The proposed changes would mean inclusive teaching about relationships for all sexual orientations and genders.

These changes couldn't come fast enough. The sex education students currently receive in Irish schools is better suited to the "dark ages", as TD Paul Murphy put it when introducing the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill to the Dail earlier this year.

It is woefully inadequate in almost every way; it fails to frame sex as a positive experience, instead focusing on birth control and biology, nor does it encourage students to think about the psychological aspects of sexual activity as well as the physical. The importance of consent and how to gauge it properly with your partner is rarely discussed.

When it comes to sex education, it is defined as an act between a biological male and female - with so many people identifying across the sexual spectrum, and thus having varied sexual experiences, this is irrelevant and can do more harm than good.

Refusing to acknowledge an individual's sexuality when teaching about sex further propagates the notion that they are fundamentally different. Under the new proposals, primary and secondary school students will be taught about gay, lesbian and transgender relationships "without distinction as to their heterosexual counterparts".

Despite the social changes of the past few years, LGBT youths still face challenges their heterosexual counterparts do not. This has been acknowledged with plans to implement a system that reports instances of homophobic or transphobic bullying in schools.

It will be compulsory for all schools to teach this new curriculum, regardless of the school's ethos or religious belief.

Perhaps the most pressing issue not being addressed in schools is the impact of pornography on young people. In November, the findings from a National Youth Council of Ireland survey found that 84pc of people believe pornography has an impact on Ireland's young people.

Relevant, informative sex education will not stop young people watching pornography online, but it would provide a desperately needed counterbalance to the often violent, unrealistic portrayals of sex that many young people are confronted with. Pornography is not a bad thing, but it has the power to entirely distort a person's perception of sex, and later on their relationships, if used as an educative tool.

As a society, we have been horrified at the reported instances of rape, assault and harassment inflicted upon our women. They have bravely spoken out about horrors many of us cannot fathom. There is a direct correlation to be made between the sexual violence of pornography and the real-life violence perpetuated by men against women.

Failing to address this link is failing our women, and indeed, all of our young people. Adolescence is rife with anxiety and confusion about so many things. The silence, embarrassment and awkwardness that currently surrounds the discussion of sex makes the topic even more taboo for young people. Not only do they deserve better than this, but they desperately need more: more frank conversation, more objective information and less fear.

Sex education is one of the few things taught in school that has real-life application for almost everybody. Understanding the joys of sex is one of life's greatest learning curves. Let's equip our young people with the knowledge they need before they set off into the great unknown.

Sunday Independent

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