‘I only learned about sex when I started to look things up online’
Irish students feel that advice from schools on sex and relationships falls short
Irish students feel that advice from schools on sex and relationships falls short. File photograph: Getty Images
When Meaghan McCarthy went looking for advice on sex and relationships as a teenager, she quickly realised she would not find the answers in the classroom.
“There were so many holes in this so-called relationships and sexual education subject I received in school,” says McCarthy (20), who is now a student at Maynooth University.
“There was nothing on the LGBT+ community, nothing about consent, nothing on what a healthy relationship is let alone a healthy sexual relationship, and nothing on body positivity.
“I only started to learn about sex and relationships when I started to look things up on the internet. Even then my education had many holes until I started to study youth work in college, and while I was on a placement I was sent on a sexual health training course.”
The findings are reflected in a poll of more than 1,000 young people aged 14-24 by Youth Work Ireland, which finds young people are turning to pornography and the internet for sex education instead of teachers or parents.
It is questionable to what degree young people ever relied on parents or teachers; most – including this generation – admit to feeling awkward about seeking their advice even though most young people say they feel much more open about discussing sex.
What is new for this generation is the ease of access to pornography, and experts are still in the early days of assessing what kind of impact this has on young people.
Jordan Cassells (19) says it is easy to see why the internet is far more appealing to young people: they don’t feel judged or awkward. But he says there are clear downsides.
“We spend our lives on the internet, so these findings aren’t at all surprising, or that young people found pornography useful,” says Cassells, a law student at University of Limerick.
“The danger is that when young people see porn they take it at face value. They can internalise and normalise it. They don’t see the negative aspect of it. It’s not a surprise that young lads end up objectifying women or engaging in locker room-style talk.”
While there is a political debate on the quality of sex education at school, some feel it is asking too much of teachers to be able to teach academic subjects in one class and relationship advice in another.
“It seems like most people are going about their education their own way, and that includes using porn as a basis for learning.
“Being perfectly honest, sex education is an awkward topic for everyone involved. I don’t want to cringe or feel embarrassed every time I walk into a business class because just yesterday we were talking about the birds and the bees.”