Second Opinion: Talks on sexual abstinence have no place in our schools

Unbelievably, talks on sexual abstinence are still delivered to post-primary school students by external agencies. A spokeswoman for an organisation called Pure in Heart was interviewed last week on RTÉ 's Today with Seán O'Rourke.

Her message was it’s good to be pure and abstaining from sexual activity until marriage is the best option. Listeners, who texted in their views, were largely in favour of chastity education, thought teaching about purity was “refreshing”, and Catholic schools were entitled to promote Catholic views on sexuality. They are not.

Schools funded by taxpayers cannot include abstinence as part of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE). The R in RSE stands for relationships, not religion.

A Department of Education and Skills (DES) circular (0037/2010) issued to post-primary schools says that access to sex education is a right for students under the terms of Article 11.2 of the European Social Charter.


This must be “objective, based on contemporary scientific evidence and does not involve censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting information”.

All aspects of the RSE programme must be taught, including contraception, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation. “Elements of the programme cannot be omitted on the grounds of school ethos.” Each school must have an RSE policy, including how invited external agencies fit into the overall plan.

Circular 0023/2010 about RSE, Best Practice Guidelines for Post-Primary Schools , spells out the precise criteria that apply to classroom visitors.

“All programmes and events delivered by visitors and external agencies must use appropriate, evidence-based methodologies with clear educational outcomes.”

What might these be for abstinence programmes? Students will abstain from sexual activity until marriage? An unachievable objective.

Convincing evidence
There is convincing evidence that abstinence programmes do not delay sexual activity, have no impact on frequency of sexual activity or number of partners.

Perhaps the objective is that students will understand they can choose not to have sex? Surely they know this already. That is the whole purpose of the RSE programme.

Anyone over 17 years of age, married or single, gay or straight, can choose to have, or not have, consensual sex at any time.

The guidelines also spell out teaching approaches that should not be used.

Schools are advised to avoid the following methods: use of scare tactics (masturbation causes depression); sensationalist interventions (showing teenagers unconscious from alcohol use); testimonials (inviting in an ex-addict, alcoholic or sex abstainer); information-only interventions (a talk from a health specialist on sexually transmitted infections); once-off/short- term interventions (talks on hygiene by nurses or any other health topic); normalising risky behaviour (giving the impression that most teenagers get drunk, have sex and take drugs) and didactic methods (Powerpoint presentations).

Teenagers need comprehensive sexuality education which, theoretically, is delivered by the RSE programme. Unfortunately, whatever they are learning, it is not good enough.

Not working
The messages about choice, sexual rights, consent, and using negotiation skills are not getting through.

A January 2014 study, commissioned by Rape Crisis Network Ireland, found that university students, who would have taken the RSE programme just a few years before, see consent as a tacit unspoken process.

“The male gender role was to push the progression onward through successive stages, while the female role was described as acquiescing, showing willingness, or acting as gatekeepers to halt progression.

“It was seen as weird or amusing to consider consent as something that would be explicitly negotiated.”

Part of the problem is that while schools tick the boxes to say RSE is covered, there is no evidence about the quality of classes. A report published in January 2014, Results of Department of Education and Skills 'Lifeskills' Survey, 2012 , showed that available data "do not provide any insight into the quality of RSE provision within schools".

No one knows what contribution external agencies and visiting speakers make to learning outcomes even though they are used to support RSE programmes in 95 per cent of post-primary schools.

In most schools the input of the external facilitators is not effectively integrated into the relevant programme plan.

Programmes linking abstinence to purity, implying that anyone who engages in sex outside marriage is contaminated, have no place in schools.

Marriage does not confer special wisdom about sex, or any other important human experience, which magically descends on a couple on the day of the ceremony. Abstinence education is like trying to teach someone to ride a bike with the brakes permanently on. It can’t be done.

The DES needs to stop these nonsense interventions now and start measuring the quality of RSE classes.

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion