Moral values are simply the rules that people live by. These rules have changed radically in the past 20 years. The difficulty for teachers, who are trying to teach about sexual morality in line with the core values and ethos of their school, is that teenagers are influenced by the double standards that are widely accepted in our society. If a child's parents do not respect or blatantly reject traditional moral values, the child is likely to do the same.
Almost one in four children now entering primary school do not come from a two-parent family with married parents. Some single parents are separated. Others have never married. Others still have a partner who died. A small number of children come from blended families, where children from different relationships are brought together in a new family. There has been a major shift in the norms and standards affecting decisions about sexual behaviour in our society, both within and outside of marriage.
While it is true that the majority of children still live in the more traditional two-parent family, it is equally true that many of those families are troubled. Probably as many as one in four married couples are coping with marital difficulties. Many teachers are able to predict parental separation before it happens because of the academic and behavioural changes they observe in a child. Girls and boys of all ages feel very insecure when a parent leaves the family either through separation or death. Some younger children cope by misbehaving in school and letting their grades drop. Older teenagers often seek solace through alcohol, drugs or pre-marital sex.
I suspect that many of the more vocal parents who demand that teachers instill traditional moral values in pupils are ignorant of the role parents play in teaching moral values or lack of values. Adolescents base their behaviour not on the values their parents or teachers talk about but on how their parents actually behave. Studies show that there is a significant correlation between parental use of drugs such as alcohol and tranquilisers and the use by adolescents of illegal drugs. There is also evidence to show that adolescents from single-parent families are more likely to begin sexual activity earlier than teenagers from two-parent families. This may be due to less parental supervision.
Also, if a parent is dating, his or her sexual behaviour influences the attitude of the child to sex outside marriage.
The majority of teenagers believe in "safe sex", not abstinence. A recent survey of students aged 16 to 18 by the Department of Public Health in the Midland Health Board found that 32 per cent of the 1,654 respondents claimed to have had sexual intercourse. About a quarter of those who were sexually active had had three or more partners. A survey conducted by Cork AIDS Alliance published The Irish Times last November 27th found that one in five males between the ages of 15 and 17 had engaged in sex with six or more partners.
The attitude of teenagers to what is appropriate sexual behaviour is promiscuous. I was working with a group of girls aged 15 and 16 recently. I asked them to get into small groups and report on what they believed was appropriate behaviour when one is dating for one month. They gave me permission to use their answers in this article.
All of the six small groups said that kissing, cuddling, holding hands, giving hickeys (love bites) on the neck, feeling breasts and mutual masturbation were appropriate. These were students who fully understood that it is illegal for a man to have sex with a girl under 17. Despite that knowledge, one group said that if the couple felt comfortable, it was okay to have full sex. Two groups were divided. Some in the group felt oral sex was permissible, if the couple felt ready; others disagreed.
Effective RSE programmes must acknowledge that a significant number of teenagers are sexually active and that teenage sex is not a good experience. Many are aware from personal experience that genital sex is unsatisfactory. Premature sex is more likely to increase feelings of being used, inferiority and lack of self-worth rather than build one's confidence. Teenagers need to be reassured that when one's intimacy needs are satisfied, the need for genital expression diminishes. According to Rollo May, "For human beings the most powerful need is not for sex per se but for relationship, intimacy, affection and affirmation". In our permissive society, teachers who are expected to pass on traditional moral values face an incredibly difficult task.