How to talk to teenagers about sex

Young people want more information about sex and relationships, and it’s up to parents and teachers to find a way to give it to them

Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 01:00

Are young people really sending each other naked pictures? Is pornography moulding their ideas of sex? What pressures face young people, and how can a good relationships and sexuality education programme help?

Politicians are talking about lowering the age of consent from 17 to 16. Meanwhile, there is concern about sexting; Internet Safety for Schools Ireland, a service run by Dr Maureen Griffin, a psychologist, says that as many as one in four young people has texted sexual or naked pictures of themselves. All the while, young people are being bombarded with sexual images.

It’s a world away from when the Department of Education’s relationships and sexuality education (RSE) programme was designed, in the mid 1990s, when the internet was in its infancy. Parents and teachers are concerned about the health of young people but are struggling to catch up. How can they talk to young people about sex?

Last week, this Sex Talk series highlighted some of the programme’s ongoing problems. Three issues stood out: some schools are cherry-picking which aspects of the programme they were willing to deliver; some teachers or external groups are censoring, withholding or misrepresenting information, particularly around contraception; and 62 per cent of schools inspected by the department plan their programmes persistently weakly.

At the Dáil na nÓg conference at Croke Park last November, young people from around Ireland ranked the poor provision of social, personal and health education (SPHE), which includes RSE, as their second-biggest concern. (The top concern was mental health.)

People working in RSE say the pressures and expectations on young people have increased with the advent of social media. In 2010 Unicef reported that friends and peers are one of young people’s main sources of information about sex. It also reported that one in five 16-year-olds in Ireland say they have had sex, with 82 per cent of those having had full penetrative sex. Ten per cent said they did know what kind of sex they had had.

Last month NUI Galway and the Rape Crisis Network echoed Unicef’s study inreporting that most Irish teens drank alcohol before sex and did not feel confident about reporting unwanted sexual experiences.

Sex and relationships: what do students want?
The Department of Education has advised schools to use outside agencies for RSE with caution and as part of a broad programme: they should supplement rather than replace the role of the RSE teacher.

But students who spoke to The Irish Times, school inspectors and the Dáil na nÓg say they often find it easier to speak to an outside facilitator about sex rather than to a teacher they will have to see every day. The problems arise, the students say, when an agency is seen as didactic and agenda-driven, and does not truly listen to, and engage with, them.

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