The Irish sex education system has been heavily challenged in the last couple of years. Students, politicians, sexual health and wellbeing charities from around the country have been calling for major reform to a system that still bases itself around abstinence as the most effective form of contraception. There has been a nationwide call for inclusion of issues such as LGBTQ+ inclusive discussions, consent, information on wide varieties of birth control, how to recognise toxic relationships, and other concrete issues that young people face today. 

These discussions are prevalent in universities around the country. One of the main things that struck me as a first year student was the wide variety of workshops, talks from speakers and information booklets that made issues around consent easily accessible. While this was a wonderful element of my university experience and led to an increased sense of autonomy, as an 18 year old all this information had come too late. The formative experiences of my teenage years, coloured by an outdated and frankly embarrassing lack of sex ed, had already done their damage. They could easily have been prevented by a standardised system: a safe place to ask questions and receive unbiased answers. 

Sixth class in primary school was the first time the topic of puberty surfaced in an education setting for me. The boys and girls were separated for forty minutes and given their own respective ‘talks’. I can only speculate as to what the boys were told, but the girls in our class were shown how to put on a sanitary towel and how to navigate menstruation. Considering the one-too-many embarrassing stories I’ve had with men my age that reveal how little they know about the day to day functionality around periods, surely this conversation should be all inclusive?

Then came the joys of a Catholic single sex school.

The lack of systematic sex ed meant that Religion class became a space for some particularly conservative teachers to push agendas around sexuality, relationships and abortion. With such beliefs presented as fact, misinformation spread that was particularly damaging, including but not limited to birth control causing infertility and that having an abortion meant instant damnation. These rumours could have easily been quashed if given access to a non judgmental discussion space. 

In senior cycle, a nurse showed us a graphic slideshow containing pictures of STDS as a warning as to what could happen if we had sex. Recent discussions with friends who attended private, co-ed or non denominational schools have revealed that some had better sex ed than others; the condom/ banana method is one that pops up a lot that we were never shown. Information about such a fundamental part of life should be easily accessible to all, and not dependent on the fees you pay, your school’s location, or the gender makeup.

Of course, there are charities across Ireland that provide safe, unbiased sex education for those who seek it out, and are committed to lobbying for a standardised sex ed system. But while the information is out there, it fundamentally should not be something that a confused teenager has to search far and wide for.

Ireland’s sexual health education system has been widely challenged, but too little is being done too slowly, and a full system overhaul is urgently needed. Norma Foley announced the introduction of teachings around consent to be introduced in schools in 2023. However, this goes hand in hand with the implementation of ‘Flourish’, a new sex ed system for use in Catholic primary schools including the teaching that sex is a ‘gift from God’ that belongs only in marriage. It all feels like one step forward, two steps back. 

I intend to hammer the importance of body autonomy, safe sex, consent and communication into my future children – is it too much to ask that our schooling system does the same?

Charities you can support that provide helpful information for young people:

The Rainbow Project


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