This week’s blog was written by Naoise Murphy. Naoise is a student of English Literature and French at Durham University. She writes for the university newspaper and is a member of the Feminist Society.
Under the European Social Charter, which deals with health and education, students have a right to objective sexual and reproductive health education which does not involve censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting information. I would venture to add that they also have the right to an education which prepares them to be responsible adults in all areas, including sex and sexuality, and that the education system should not be producing young adults who are complicit in the widespread culture of rape, entitlement, slut shaming and objectification manifesting itself on college campuses today. This is simply not happening in Ireland.
Currently, Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is mandatory at secondary level, but with one massive qualification; schools can deliver this education in accordance with their ethos. They are required to cover core issues such as family planning, STIs and sexual orientation, but the way in which these are covered is completely up to the school and the Board of Management. Recent investigations have shown that even this seriously faulty system is not being implemented properly, with 74% of students receiving little or no sex ed.
Because of this rule, I can only speak about the sex ed I was exposed to at school, but I feel that it was fairly representative of the norm. The RSE I received was completely centred around ‘disaster prevention’. The overwhelming attitude was one of ‘Well, if you absolutely insist on having sex, here’s how not to get pregnant or infected’. Obviously, contraception and STIs are crucial aspects which need to be discussed, but there is absolutely no reference made to the positive aspects of sex. I don’t mean being told that being a mother is wonderful and fulfilling, I mean teaching students that sex can be pleasurable for all participants, regardless of whether they want it to result in a baby or not. I did not know what a clitoris was until I came across the word while reading about female genital mutilation in Somalia. I navigated most of my teenage years believing that masturbation was disgusting and wrong and with no idea how non-heterosexual sex could possibly work. It seems that teachers assume that we know about the pleasurable aspects of sex. I suppose we do, somewhere in the back of our minds, but the emphasis on disaster prevention in school meant that I, personally, was terrified of sex. All I ever seemed to hear about were the dangers.
Refusing to discuss female sexual pleasure in schools denies female agency. It strips women of the right to pursue sexual pleasure for its own sake. In RSE women are cast as innocent young virgins, then as disembodied uteruses, and then as mothers. If our curriculum views the female body as simply as vessel for reproduction, how are young people supposed to think differently? Women have sexual needs just as men do, but for some reason schools insist on denying this. This lack of female agency feeds directly into rape culture, as it propagates the view of women as passive recipients in sexual acts.
It seems that this lack of interest in teaching about pleasure stems partly from the intense heteronormativity of Irish culture. If the aim of RSE is to prevent teenage pregnancy, as it seems to be in the minds of many in education, then there is no need to teach about non-traditional sexual relationships. These are mentioned briefly with regard to STIs; a quick side note about how gay people are not automatically immune. ‘Sexuality Education’ is failing to teach us about sexuality. It is plagued with a damaging case of tunnel vision – ‘’sex = production of babies; unwanted babies and infections are bad’’.
We’ve been hearing quite a bit lately about the problem of slut shaming among teenage girls. I can verify that this is endemic in Irish secondary schools and is reinforced through sex ed. When girls are denied the right to seek pleasure, they simply cannot have a sexual life without having value judgments imposed on them by their peers. This, I would argue, is being taught to us in RSE, which denies the existence of any model of sexual relations other than the ‘heterosexual married couple having sex to have a baby’ or the ill-advised sexual exploits of badly educated teenagers who do not understand the risks, both bodily and reputational.
This brings us to the issue of consent. If I stretch my memory, I can recall something vague about not letting your boyfriend pressure you into having sex before you’re ready, but that was really all I ever heard about consent in RSE. This is absolutely ludicrous, when one in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Women are not being taught to take ownership of their bodies. This starts with knowing what we enjoy and are comfortable with. It starts with exploring our own bodies, which yes, means masturbation. Good consent is a minefield of complicated issues which are hardly being touched on in schools. We need to teach girls, and more importantly, boys, about enthusiastic consent; a model of ‘yes means yes’ rather than just ‘no means no’ (which we don’t even seem to be getting anyway).
Students do not have the vocabulary to communicate about sex and consent. Shockingly, research conducted at NUI Galway, in association with the Rape Crisis Network, showed that some young people were too embarrassed to discuss using a condom with their partner. Surely the purpose of RSE is to equip us with the tools to navigate sex confidently and sensitively, in full awareness of the possibilities, the options and of course, the dangers as well. Our system needs to change. We need to start talking about sex openly and honestly, teaching students of all genders to respect the integrity and desires of every body, no matter what sexual organs it has.
‘Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape’, 2008, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (eds.).