Let’s Talk About Sex (Baby) – Sex-Ed In Ireland

Written By Eoin Doyle.

In Ireland there has been a repeated call for greater levels of sex education in secondary schools over the last number of years. It’s been known for a while now that in order to give our younger generation the best preparation for the life ahead of them, quality education is pretty much essential to safeguarding the future. That said, there’s plenty to say about the state of sexual education in Ireland, especially in my case as it’s pretty simple to say that I wasn’t on the receiving end of the greatest level of it. So in order to maybe take a look at some of the flaws within the system, I’m going to travel back down memory lane in order to see what it is that went right or wrong in my own experience of receiving sex ed.

So there we were, a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds in a classroom on a dull afternoon, only to be left somewhat confused as a class that was supposed to be English or possibly history, which was interrupted by our SPHE (Sexual, Personal and Health Education) teacher who told us that instead we’d be getting some of the ‘facts of life’. Immediately the atmosphere wasn’t exactly optimal as the standard giggling and joking from the back of the room was accompanied by some looks of discomfort from others. The class wasn’t helped by the fact that the SPHE teacher, who I’d like to say from personally knowing them is a lovely individual, was hardly enthused by the topic at hand. It started off normally enough, we were given a pretty standard account of the anatomy of reproductive systems and a barebones explanation of this going in that and whatnot. We were told that STI’s exist and that contraception is a thing. Details were sparse and at the age of 14 we weren’t exactly confident to ask questions.

Therein lies the problems I experienced with my sexual education, there was never an actual emphasis on providing information regarding anything outside of “a sperm can fertilise an egg in the fallopian tube and then the baby happens”. It’s not a huge surprise that later in life, once I had become sexually active, I realised just how little I was told and how much ground I had to make up in order to actually become comfortable sexually. I can say that in my experiences maybe I’ve been lucky in that no massive mishaps have occurred, no unplanned pregnancies or huge issues, but the issue still remains in that luck is by no means something we can hope to educate people on. The single worst offender for ‘things we were taught’ has to be the most half-assed attempt at explaining consent we got on a later date. To paraphrase, “lads, be careful what you do and don’t do because you could get yourself into serious trouble”. It’s not inaccurate to say that wasn’t the most comprehensive explanation of an incredibly serious topic. It wasn’t until I got to college that I truly realised how amazingly unprepared for things I was, despite being sexually active for over 2 years by that point.

I’d like to say that this is solely indicative of my sex ed, maybe I was missing for the important classes in which sage wisdom was passed down to my peers and they were given sound advice that they still remember today. I’d like to say that but having asked some of the people I was in school with, it seems I’ve hit the nail pretty clearly on the head. In such a case, we can see the system doesn’t work. There’s definitely a problem if the sexual education doesn’t educate about sex. So how do we go about fixing something like this, in which a systematic issue is clearly to blame. In my eyes what we need to focus on is the fact that not nearly enough detail was given to students to understand some of the most crucial aspects of sexual activity. So let’s look at some of the aspects, what I was told, and what I feel like should be taught.

So when we were taught about sex, there wasn’t much taught to us about anything other than the pure mechanical aspects of conception. As was detailed earlier, we were told that contraceptives existed but apart from that there was almost nothing taught about safe sex. There was no details on the use of any contraceptives, no condom application demonstration for example. On the female contraceptive side, almost nothing was said altogether. Despite the readily available range of contraceptives that can be chosen from, we weren’t actually told what they were, how they were applied, how long they lasted, what side-effects could be expected. This shows a distinct problem because as most people know now, there are a variety of issues that can arise due to the use of hormonal contraceptives such as the pill. On top of this, our information on Sexually Transmitted Infections was even less substantial. Not once were we told about even common STI’s or their transmission or treatment. We were simply left at being told that STI’s exist and that they’re bad. Given the prevalence of certain STI’s and the fact that unplanned pregnancies still happen often, I’m left with the impression that if this aspect was covered properly, we’d have a lot less issues arising.

We weren’t the receivers of the most detailed sexual health information when it came to relationship and personal mental health education. In a time when so many of us were very confused as to what it meant to be sexually active, what relationships are, how they work and how sex fits into them. In the case of education about sexuality or sexual identity there was a complete lack of information being passed on to us. As someone who was struggling with being a closet bisexual at the time, there was a huge amount of confusion in my specific case and it was impossible to see where the information I was given at the time would help me in my issue. For a number of my friends who are part of the LGBTQ community, this is a common problem that I’ve found when asking around. Given the level of youth suicide in general, but in particular amongst LGBTQ youth, that can be seen to have been spurred by relationships and sexuality, clearly there is a huge and desperate need to rectify the issues that I’ve outlined.

The last aspect that I’ll touch on is the massive lack in education to deal with the issue of consent. In Ireland we’ve seen huge issues arise where, when asked, people actually make excuses for people who have sex with non-consenting partners. In class we were simply told that it could get us in trouble, however it was said in a vague manner that had to do more so with sex with a partner who had not yet reached the legal age of consent. There was absolutely nothing said about what consent actually was, what situations would make it clear that consent can’t be given, what the protocol is for someone who has been sexually abused nor were we told what the legal ramifications for this is. Considering that for most of us, we would then see stories for the next number of years where consent was debated or disregarded in situations, not having this information to allow us to understand one of the most crucial aspects of sexual activity is not only problematic but downright dangerous.

If this is the state of sexual education in Irish secondary schools, then we as a society have quite a good reason to be worried for the sexual health as well as the personal mental health for the younger generations. Arguments have been made by some that if we increase the amount of knowledge that is passed to secondary school students regarding sex that they’ll have more sex which will lead to more issues. Instead we have a society that believes ignorance is bliss in regard to one of the most need-to-know areas of life. Given the consequences of actions, how is it that we as a society can stand back and allow such problems to exist in such a crucial area?