Shorter childhoods mean sex education at home is vital


Finding a consensus on sex is not easy, but it should be possible to link it to commitment, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

LET’S TALK about sex, baby, to quote those 1991 gurus, Salt’n’Pepa. To no one’s surprise, a recent Dáil na nÓg survey found most second-level schools are not talking much about sex to their senior cycle pupils at all. The numbers surveyed were extremely small, but let’s not quibble. In general, the findings ring true.

Some of the most important findings are that Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) is not timetabled at senior level, and so is delivered in a haphazard fashion. Many pupils aged 16 or over receive little or no RSE. One young woman said: “Religion is about your spirituality and your moral decisions. I just don’t see how the relevant factual information of RSE can be taught through religion when it has absolutely no relevance and can only but be biased.”

I would prefer to see RSE as part of a timetabled social, personal and health education subject, but religion should not be excluded on the grounds of bias. There is no such thing as value-neutral education. The best option is to be open about moral stances and then teach thinking skills. Religion class can also provide a safe space for much-needed discussion.

The buzz-word in education is a “whole-school approach”. Students may receive very valuable sex education in English class in a talk on Romeo and Juliet. The nuts and bolts of sex take very little time. All the other difficult aspects need thoughtful treatment from many different angles at school.

The survey did not ask about levels of sex education received at home. Virtually the only mention of parents was an obviously horrified reaction to the idea that parents should teach sex education classes in school.

Sex education is controversial everywhere. The limited research available shows that parents’ opinions, especially mothers, really matter to young people. For example, one US survey in 2000 found that young people were more likely to delay sexual activity if they knew their mother strongly disapproved of becoming sexually active too young. But lots of young people were not aware of their parents’ opinions.

I suspect it is because when puberty arrives, many parents give up and hope for the best. There is a crisis in parental confidence. Parents are not sure what messages to give.

Parents who only deliver “if you can’t be good, be careful” teaching often fail to realise the amount of emotional damage caused to young people when they are sexually active too young. Few things are as fragile as the teenage heart. No matter how the culture attempts to indoctrinate them that sex is merely a recreational activity, they will persist in investing it with far more significance.

Research by the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Agency confirms what we might suspect. People who have sex before the age of consent are very likely to regret it, more likely to have one-night stands, and to experience teen pregnancy and STIs.

An advert in the current Atlanticmagazine shows a human brain with a bit missing. It asks, “Why do most 16 year olds drive like they are missing part of their brain?” The text informs us that it is because they are, or more accurately, that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is not properly developed until people are in their 20s. It plays a vital role in understanding future consequences of decisions.

Messages like “make sure you wait until you are ready” are virtually useless to young people, because the part of their brain that calculates consequences is still developing. “Wait until the age of consent” is marginally better than “wait until you are ready”, but not much.

Our lack of articulacy around sexuality is a mirror of our lack of moral vocabulary. In pre-modern times, there was still a belief, as writer and philosopher Edward Skidelsky has said, that virtues were “the natural excellences of the species – they are to us what speed is to the leopard”.

Unlike the leopard, virtues only developed after extensive training. Today, we have substituted rights and obligations for virtues, and where there is no obligation, we are forced into silence. If someone is a reasonably responsible citizen, but wishes to be promiscuous, provided their partners are willing, we can only shrug that they are “within their rights”.

We lack a language to describe the coarsening effect on society if everyone only acts within their rights, and if high standards are something to treat with amused cynicism. As Skidelsky says: “By enshrining individual choice, liberalism has eroded the public language of morality, leaving nothing but a set of rules for frictionless co-existence.”

Our children are the casualties. The protected zone of childhood grows shorter and shorter, and we tacitly accept too-early sexual activity in young people.

Finding a consensus on sexual behaviour is not easy, but it should surely be possible to link sexual activity to commitment. Imagine if a fraction of the effort that goes into making young people happy little consumers went into reinforcing the idea that sex belongs in committed relationships. Imagine the human misery we would avoid.

Sex education has to begin with parents. Of course young people should receive sex education in school, but it is only when the same message is reinforced elsewhere that it will have real impact.

Young people deserve the best. They deserve respect, openness, information, thinking skills and clear moral guidelines. Will they always listen? No. But they listen far more than parents suspect.

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