Sex education in school: students say how it was for them
Dáil na nÓg 2013, where 200 delegates aged between 12 and 17 took part in a discussion about how sex education should be delivered
A big response from readers followed last week’s Sex Talk articles. This is a small selection of comments from students who had been interviewed for the series or who got in touch in the past week. Some asked to be anonymous. The Irish Times knows their schools and identities.
“I do feel still a bit unprepared contraception-wise. I mean, what is the pill? How does it work? Where would one get it and how much does it cost? I can definitely look all this stuff up myself, but if there’s an RSE class I’m forced to attend every Tuesday – if that class was maths instead I’d be over the moon – should I have to? Anyway, I will have to, because the teachers swapped last week, and we are now being taught RSE by the school priest. That is to say, we’ll be watching Forrest Gump until the end of the year, which is a definite waste of time.”
16, fifth year, Coláiste Muire, Ennis, Co Clare
“Talking about sex can be awkward. Too often students can laugh when they hear about sex and body parts. Our school principal was very supportive of us putting together a project for the Young Social Innovators competition about sex education. We called it Sexication.
“To start, we got in touch with AIDS West, who came into the school and gave us comprehensive information on contraception, STIs, relationships and informed consent. Next we did a survey of the various year groups in the schools and found that only 28 per cent of students had been given sex education in the home. We set up a noticeboard in school with facts and information about sexuality and relationships. We had Facebook and Twitter accounts to get information to students.
“Our own school does have RSE, but we were aware that many schools don’t always have a sufficient programme; it’s not an exam subject, so it can get a bit buried, especially in third year and the Leaving Cert years. Students should be receiving accurate and factual information about contraception; it is wrong and unfair if it is distorted.
“At the same time we need RSE more than ever, with an increasing number of teenagers engaging in sexual activity and sexting.”
16, fifth year, Munster
“The main focus of our sex education was a woman coming in and talking about the various diseases you can get from sex. In first year she gave us a talk on puberty. We have had anti-sex talks, but not really a sex talk. And we had a nun talk to us about abortion.
“Talking to friends, I would say my school is particularly poor when it comes to sex education. There is a very strong religious ethos. It is very, very strict, and discipline is tight and authoritarian.”
16, transition year, Meath, president, Irish Second-level Students’ Union (ISSU)
“Working with the ISSU, it has become clear that RSE classes can be stressful and pressured for teachers who have so much information they need to drill into us in such a short space of time. Even an extra 10 or 15 minutes would do it justice.
“I think it is right that individual schools have their own position on relationships and sexuality education rather than a centrally imposed curriculum.”
16, fifth year, Dublin
“I attend a well-known Dublin ‘rugby school’. I wish I was truly surprised by the scandal as revealed in your piece.
“Even though I can sense a curiosity or discomfort about sexual orientation in my year – a reference to a scientific term with the prefix ‘homo’ was met with raucous laughing in my top-stream biology class today – I could bet my house on the fact that the topic wasn’t broached in any RSE class this year. Not the most comfortable environment for any closeted person.
“The use of scare tactics, especially with regard to STIs, is patronising. I can’t remember much talk about contraception in class. However, we were presumed to be scared straight by syphilis and the likes. They neglect to remember that teenagers know everything and that we aren’t all that fazed in the long term about gory details or even pictures. To have unprotected sex is usually an impulse decision, not one you’re going to remember the images of infected genitals for.”
17, sixth year, Dublin
“Our teacher didn’t seem very sure or confident discussing sex. The basics and mechanics were covered in biology, but it was more geared towards an exam question: how to label the reproductive system and what were the different types of contraception.
“When we did have the sex talk it was a one-off, and it felt like a science class. A lot of us said we wanted to talk about contraception and STIs. She said she would go on to a website and look it up.
“The boys thought we would learn how to use a condom, but the teacher just passed a diagram around. There was no mention of crisis pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections in my six years in school.”
“Early in the academic year 2012-13 we went on a pilgrimage, on a sixth-year school trip. It began simply, with ‘God wants you to be celibate.’ They urged abstinence. A woman spoke of a near-death experience leading her to ‘reclaim her virginity for God’. A man spoke of his alcohol and dependence issues and linked them with terrible relationships.
“They told us that, due to reasons involving the way in which the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin are released, if we lost our virginity outside of marriage we would find it difficult or nigh on impossible to formalise emotional ties with our eventual wife.
“They dodged the issue of gay people when it was raised. The talk did not require the permission of parents.”
This account was corroborated by two other students who were at the same talk
A VIEW FROM A PARENT:
Late last year, my daughter's school invited a speaker from Here2Help to come in and talk to the senior students about sex for about one hour. This was to be the entire sex education for the senior students for the year. Parents weren't advised of the talk in advance or given any information for their children to bring home to follow up with. I had never heard of Here2Help so had to do some research on them to see if they really were the non-agenda group they claimed to be.
“Thankfully for my daughter they were very open and non-judgmental but it worries me that the school could have asked any group and we would not have known about it.
“What was most ironic, not to mention frustrating, was that the speaker told the students that part of her talk normally included a discussion of the various means of contraception out there but that the school had asked her to omit this in order to keep in with its Catholic ethos.”
Left school in 2007
“I went to an all-female Catholic secondary school in Galway and I graduated in 2007. Biology was one of my subjects for the Leaving Cert, and when we got to human reproduction, our teacher said that she could not talk about contraception as she could lose her job. She asked us not to ask her questions on the matter. In my SPHE class our teacher told us about how abortion involved ''babies being thrown into bins'' and left to die.
“In our final year we were all summoned to the library to hear a talk about sex from two young men. We were told that sex should only take place within marriage and for the purpose of reproduction. They said sex that takes place outside of marriage results in emotional trauma, possible STIs, that any couple who does it will break up as they can't handle the emotional consequences, and that men will not respect women who do this. Any woman who does have pre-marital sex has no self respect, is hurting herself, and is just looking for attention. We were told how contraception does not work and is immoral as it prevents conception. We were also told that masturbation is sinful and one shouldn't do it as it makes God angry and is selfish. We were encouraged to wear virginity rings.
“Seven years later I feel very angry about this. I am angry that students receiving accurate, un-biased information came second to my school’s desire to enforce its dogma on us. I am angry at the blatant lies and misinformation we received. I'm angry with the government for making this possible in the first place. Things have to change. Study upon study has demonstrated that abstinence-only education is ineffective. Whether the Catholic church likes it or not, young people are engaging in sexual activity and we have a right to easy access to accurate information.”
A view from a parent:
“As a parent my experience of sex education in our schools does not take into account the comprehension level of individual children, their background and the ethos of the family. Schools should not intrude in this intimate and personal area without prior consultation with individual parents. My child was very upset with the sex education she received and I requested her to be withdrawn from the following session. Of course the principal `forgot’ and she was subjected to the continuing stressful situation. On asking her what she learned from the session she replied `When boys and girls are 16 they have sex together’.
“I also object to my child being taught core values by people such as the Irish Family Planning Association. Who are these people? What are their values? Who gave them the right to interfere in the upbringing of my child? Why does the DES call on these self-appointed groups as advisers to parents and children?”