In Ireland, Sex Education takes center stage for first time in almost 20 years

DUBLIN—On screen, a young woman vigorously shakes a pregnancy test in a convenience mart.
“That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid,” says the attendant at the counter.
For some, Juno is a popular, coming-of-age, American film to watch with friends.
For others, like Maynooth University student Niamh Codd, this is sex education.
During a recent visit to Ireland, numerous college-aged students, including Codd, said outside organizations were hired to teach sex education at their schools.
“They are also a Catholic group, so it was very much like ‘here’s what happens and that’s it,’ Codd said. “We didn’t get anything about protection. We didn’t get anything about contraception in any way. And we weren’t told about abortions. It wasn’t even discussed.”
Researchers in Ireland are finding connections between sex education and reductions in sexual assault, crisis pregnancies and child abuse, issues that have been dominating Irish media in recent months.
Sex education is linked to being less likely to experience a crisis pregnancy. Crisis pregnancies, as seen in many national surveys, lead to abortion 23 percent of the time.
The 8th Amendment referendum in Ireland has publicized conversations about crisis pregnancy and abortion. The 8th Amendment gives the mother and the unborn an equal right to life.
If repealed, abortion will be legalized during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The referendum will take place in early summer.
The #MeToo movement arrived in Ireland on January 29 when two prominent rugby players were tried for rape. Found innocent, they nonetheless had their contracts revoked.
This incident has sparked conversations about consent and relationships across the nation, particularly on college campuses.
In the midst of a recently heightened spotlight on sex, abortion and consent, Irish citizens and government officials alike are turning their attention to sex education.
Throughout the month of April, Ireland has taken two major steps towards sex education reform after 20 years of the same curriculum.
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Education Minister Richard Bruton spoke out at the beginning of April about reviewing the sex education programming that students receive.
The current curriculum was written almost 20 years ago, does not include any information about consent, and is missing information about new contraception options such as the emergency contraceptive pill (Independent.ie).
Laura Beston, a 21-year-old student at Trinity College Dublin, became a consent workshop facilitator at her university because she did not feel like her sex education provided what her classmates needed in secondary school.
“When I was 16 to 17 was the first time sex was properly talked about, like in terms of relationships,” Beston said.
“But I was never taught on consent,” she continued. “Relationships and respect within relationships was never really discussed… my first interaction and conversation about sex, consent and relationships was actually in college when I was 19.”
Ireland’s Department of Education requires that relationships and sexuality be a part of the school curriculum (RTE). But it isn’t always enforced. According to Dublin freelance journalist Peter McGuire, the religious ethos of a school can and does have a major influence on the way that this is carried out.
Ireland is unique in that Catholic patronage back 90% of all schools (Education.ie). The prevalence of religious schools comes from The Republic of Ireland’s deeply rooted and historical relationship with Christianity and Catholicism.
Fiona de Londras, editor-in-chief of the Irish Yearbook of International Law, calls this a “historical hangover.”
“When Ireland emerged from colonialism in the ‘20s and ‘30s, we didn’t have anything,” de Londras said. “The churches provided. They built the system of education, they built the system of healthcare, and that is the legacy.”
Though there has been support for Bruton’s review, some say it will not make a difference unless the religious influence on the curriculum is changed.
In an attempt to change the tide, Solidarity Party politician Ruth Coppinger has put forth the Objective Sexual Education Bill, which has the potential, if made into law, to eliminate religious control over the sex education curriculum (Irish Examiner).
The bill passed the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish legislature, on April 18 and is through to the committee stage to be reviewed in detail and improved where special committees see fit.
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Jade Hayden, journalist for Her, a women’s lifestyle and entertainment site based in Dublin, said that as far as the #MeToo movement goes, in Ireland it is risky for individuals to speak up because of the nation’s defamation laws.
“I think a lot of women are terrified to come forward, because a lot of times they don’t gain anything from it, and you are risking yourself and your own name, “ Hayden said.
She sees sex education as a good way to lessen the incidents of sexual assault.
“People just don’t know what consent is,” Hayden said. “A lot of times, people get coerced and the coercers don’t even know they were doing something wrong.”
The impending 8th Amendment referendum has also sparked conversations about sex education.
Ashling Bourke, professor and researcher at Dublin City University, has spent much of her career researching crisis pregnancies and child protection.
One in three women who have been pregnant experience a crisis pregnancy. Bourke’s research shows that a more comprehensive sex education curriculum could lower this number (RCSI).
As a result of her research, Bourke said she believes that sex education is key to reducing issues like crisis pregnancies, child abuse, and sexual assault, though she says sex education should be comprehensive not only in schools, but also in the home.
Bourke isn’t alone in thinking sex education should not be reserved for the classroom.
Outside influences are shifting the dialogue on these types of issues by trying to work within the system to create change.
Students at universities across the country have been participating in and forming consent workshops through their student unions.
Podge Henry, Vice President for Welfare and Equality at Dublin City University’s Student Union, brought consent workshops onto the campus for the first time this year.
He hosted a two-day training for about 30 students who worked alongside some staff members to facilitate the workshop. They then hosted two-hour long workshops to over 400 students, where they discussed likely scenarios and talked statistics in hopes that participants would get a better idea of consent.
A lack of talk about consent in primary and secondary schools makes these sorts of workshops vital, Henry said.
“I really though it was important because it has never been addressed before,” Henry said. “And if you look at a wider range, if you look at Time’s Up in Hollywood, it is becoming more and more prominent around the world. Women are beginning to speak out.”
He thinks first year students are a great target because they are in a new place meeting new people all the time, and if they have never been taught about consent before, it’s a necessary conversation to keep them safe.
Mother-of-three and Australian native Sarah Sproule is an occupational therapist and sex educator who wants to spread the conversation of consent to families.
Sproule said she thinks parents should take a more prominent role in the sex education that their children receive.
Her curiosity led her to get a master’s in sexuality education at Dublin City University. She had opinions about sexuality education before, but she wanted to be able to back up her beliefs with research and educate herself further on the issue.
With her education, Sproule was more confident in her ability to talk to her kids about consent and sex in a way that was age-appropriate, informative and most beneficial according to her research.
Sproule knew her method was different than most parents when her child, on a walk with a friend, found a used condom on the ground. Her child’s friend asked what it was, and her child explained that it stopped the sperm from getting to the egg. Sproule says that the friend’s parents were less-than-pleased when they were told of the incident.
Though Sproule said she understands and believes that all parents have boundaries and opinions when it comes to talking to their children about these types of things, she thinks that some conversation about sex is very important.
“I want to start from a place of understanding that not everyone can talk about this stuff and therefore not everyone can teach this stuff,” Sproule said. “We all have different levels of internalized shame and that means we are limited.”
In order to get accurate and helpful information to parents, Sproule is in the midst of launching a new website called “The Talk,” which will play host to parenting guides, helpful tools and information about talking to children. Her hope is that sex education will help promote safer sex, respectful relationships and informed decision making.
Sproule said she often wonders if better sex education could have informed her decisions.
She grew up in a family where they didn’t talk about unplanned pregnancies. In her twenties, she terminated two pregnancies in Australia without the support of her family.
Years later, her sister also experienced an unplanned pregnancy, but since they never spoke about these things, Sproule said, her sister did not think she could talk to her about it.
“Looking back at my own experience, I realized there are some natural mistakes that I made, and then there are things that happened or decisions that I made because I was ill-informed,” Sproule said. “Was there information that I could have had that would have meant that I made a different decision in a particular context?”
“It’s those things that made me realize this is really more important than anything else in my life,” she continued. “…We need to accept that if we don’t speak, we are saying something.”