Sarah Burke Vaughan looks at recent developments in attitudes towards sexual education in Ireland and considers whether real progress is being made to educate the youth.
Sex education in Ireland has a long and complicated history. Many will have seen YouTube clips from the 80s of Irish Catholic ‘sex guru’ Angela discussing sex education for girls. Angela would pray before beginning her discussions to make sure that God was in the room when she taught young girls about puberty, sex, and marriage. Angela would also remark throughout the videos about how cleverly God had designed the human body specifically for making babies. Of course, these videos were made at a time when contraception had only just been legalised in Ireland and was still heavily restricted due to the country’s staunchly Catholic beliefs. As well as this, homosexuality would not be decriminalised until over a decade later, so these videos obviously focused only on male-female intercourse, within a marriage, with the intention of having a child. The assumption would be that sex education in Ireland has come a long way since then, but has it? Is there more that schools should be doing to educate Ireland’s youth about sex or are we already overloading them with too much information?
The Iona Institute is a socially conservative organisation that describes themselves as “promoting the place of marriage and religion in society” and have in the past and the present campaigned against marriage equality, civil partnership, and abortion. They have also spoken out multiple times about the role of the state in sex education. In response to an Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment report which recommended a “thorough review of sexual health and relationship education, including the areas of contraception and consent.” The Iona Institute said that the tone of the report was “less than subtle and patronising” as well as being “deeply troubling.” They also said that the Committee’s suggestion of sex education being presented independent of school ethos was a “direct threat to the ability of denominational schools to advance their own view of human sexuality and intimacy.” Multiple times the institute has advocated for chastity and moral-based sex education, with an emphasis on teaching an ‘abstinence until marriage’ approach.
In 2017, the UN recommended that Irish Schools should introduce compulsory objective sex education
They have also spoken out in regards to movements in favour of LGBT+ rights within schools, referring to the ‘Different Families, Same Love’ posters that depict families with same-sex parents and were distributed to classrooms by primary school teachers’ union INTO. The Chairman of the Iona Institute, Dr. John Murray, said that, “denominational schools should be allowed to be denominational. The problem with this poster is that it seems to require, or suggest to teachers, that they teach in a way that treats all family forms as being the same.” An article on their website criticised the Department of Education guidelines given to schools advising them to allow transgender students to wear the uniform of their choice, for teachers to refer to students by the pronouns they prefer, and to allow them to use the changing rooms they are most comfortable in. The Institute support claims that such discussions only lead to confusion for children.
On a different end of the discussion is the group Solidarity, a socialist political party that has introduced The Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018 and a petition in support of it. The bill aims to deliver “factual, objective and scientific sex education for all schools regardless of religious ethos” with a particular emphasis on contraception, LGBT+ inclusive education, education without gender norms, and which educates on abortion in a “factual and objective way.” TD Ruth Coppinger has supported this bill and said that, “at the moment, if a school has a religious ethos, it can use that to prevent aspects of relationships and sexuality being discussed that it doesn’t agree with.”
At the moment, if a school has a religious ethos, it can use that to prevent aspects of relationships and sexuality being discussed that it doesn’t agree with
In 2017, the UN recommended that Irish Schools should introduce compulsory objective sex education which should include “comprehensive sex education for adolescent girls and boys covering responsible sexual behaviours and focused on preventing early pregnancies, and ensure that it is scientifically objective and its delivery by schools is closely monitored and evaluated.” This recommendation has strongly informed the work put into the bill proposed by Solidarity, and is used as a basis for why it is needed.
In an opinion piece on theJournal.ie, Relationship and Sex Education teacher Cionnaith Ó Duibhir spoke on the state of the subject within schools, criticising the way LGBT+ sex and relationships are treated as other, unrelated to the subject at hand, and not for full discussion within the classroom. Beyond that he criticised the small amount of time secondary schools allocate for the teaching of sex education, only being obligated to provide six periods on the subject, “an agreement born of a time when schools hotly resisted teaching RSE at all.”
In general there seems to be a push on all sides for sex education to change in Ireland, whether it is arguing for more conservative education, in line with religious ethos, or believing that we are simply letting our children down by not giving them all the facts.