Teenage boys watch porn. Fact. Don't let it be their sex education

Richie Sadlier: Is Irish sex education failing boys before they've even left school?

‘At an age where they are forming their own ideas on sex and what it entails, it’s not fair to allow the porn industry be their only guides,’ says Richard Sadlier. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

‘At an age where they are forming their own ideas on sex and what it entails, it’s not fair to allow the porn industry be their only guides,’ says Richard Sadlier. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

I remember being given a little book about sex when I was around 12. My parents had somehow gotten word that I had kissed a girl behind the school after the local youth club disco a month earlier.

Figuring an intervention of sorts was required, they sprang into action and handed me the book saying they were available for any follow-up questions I might have. Obviously, I never broached the topic with them ever again. I honestly can’t remember if I even read it.

There was no sex education in all the years I went to school. It wasn’t a thing in the 1990s. We covered the mechanics of it all for Junior Cert biology, but that was it. We were taught what went where and what could happen if it did, but there were no discussions about any other aspect of the experience. Nothing on consent, communication, healthy boundaries, relationships or fun. No mention of gender, respect or the impact of alcohol and drugs. If it was just an emotionless transfer of fluids, we were fully briefed.

Through trial and error, we would go on to learn there’s quite a lot more to it than that.

Things have changed in St Benildus college since I went there. Along with psychologist Elaine Byrnes, a doctoral researcher whose work focuses on sexual behaviour and consent, I facilitate a six-week module in sexual health with Transition Year students. It’s a role I would certainly never have predicted for myself, but it’s one of the most enjoyable things I do in my working week.

And how I would have benefited from having had this class when I was that age.

We’ve been doing it on a pilot basis since last February. It came about because the topic kept coming up in my mental fitness class. Once you get 15- and 16-year-old lads talking about their interests, hopes and struggles, then relationships and sexuality will keep getting mentioned. It’s not acceptable anymore to just let them fend for themselves, especially in an area as important as this.

I’m sure there are people who couldn’t imagine discussing porn and STIs openly with teenagers. It would be just too embarrassing for them. Others would probably object to the conversation even taking place. Our primary objective with the module is to encourage students to explore what positive sexuality means for them and others in a safe, supported environment. Everyone participates according to their own level of comfort. No topic is off-limits, no question is too rude – they can stay silent for the entire module if they prefer – but you’d be amazed what they already know and where it comes from.

No previous generation of Irish teenagers has had as much access to pornography as this one. We have open discussions about the scenes they watch and what they are learning, and what if anything, they’re taking from them. At an age where they are forming their own ideas on sex and what it entails, it’s not fair to allow the porn industry be their only guides.

During the module, they learn about safe sex and why it’s important. We bring in plastic penises to let them practise how to correctly use a condom. Inevitably, at least one student will stretch a condom over their own head, but most are willing to learn this important life skill.

One of the highlights so far was the reaction of a teacher who called to our classroom when the boys were practising by themselves using the demonstrators. It took her a minute or so to regain the power of speech, and when she did, she couldn’t recall the reason she called to the room in the first place. Obviously, not everyone would be comfortable covering these topics, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be addressed.

We tease out their attitudes towards women and how they see their role as men, and how this might influence their sexual behaviour. We cover intimacy, violence, boundaries and sexual orientation, and what is, for them, the minefield of consent. We deal with the tricky legal issues around consent while intoxicated, which in Irish culture is an issue that cannot be ignored.

It’s better to learn about it now in class, rather than later in court.

You may be outraged we are discussing some of these topics with boys of this age, particularly as they’re still below the age of sexual consent themselves. You might have religious beliefs of your own which you’d like to impose on others, but research in this area, as well as basic common sense, suggests the benefits of education are considerable. It’s time we stepped up and helped to provide it to adolescents ourselves.

Simply telling them how babies are made isn’t enough anymore.

Exploration of sexuality in adolescence isn’t inherently deviant or morally wrong. Approaching it with silence and shame lets everyone down, but that’s been Ireland’s way for generations.

Elaine’s formal sex education at second level consisted of watching a video of a traumatic birth as a warning to steer clear of sex. As for me, we didn’t even get that. Thankfully, things have started to shift, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

When given the time, space and opportunity to have their voices heard, the lads have plenty to say about sexual health. You might think it would be the opposite given the nature of the topic, but that’s not been our experiencing delivering this module. We don’t pass judgment on types of behaviour or demonise any lifestyle and we’re not there to moralise or promote any ideology. It’s an open forum where they can discuss whatever they like.

We just support the students’ development in this vitally important area, which is something they not only need, it’s what they deserve.

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