At age nine, I, alongside the rest of the girls in my primary classroom, was separated from the boys and given the ‘talk.’ Immediately, bursts of giggles masked the dread and anxiety we all felt. The ‘talk’ happened to be about periods and how our bodies were about to change. It lasted about twenty minutes, and the teacher was as awkward as all of us. Meanwhile in the other room, the boys were taught about puberty and how their bodies would change. When we returned to class, the atmosphere was muddled with embarrassment from the girls and squeamish laughter from the boys. This is my first memory of a deep sense of shame that dominated my attitude towards my own body and towards something as natural as my looming period.
Primary school set the scene for what was to come in secondary-level ‘sex education’. Sex education programmes in Ireland are fuelled by religious sexual moralism, ultimately preparing us to bask in Catholic guilt. As a result, adolescents, particularly working-class students, are vulnerable to the practices and language fixated on victimisation, teenage pregnancy and the dangers of sex.
Additionally, sex education programmes embed into everyday life pre-designed ideals of gender relations – solely viewed in terms of heterosexuality – which underpin patriarchal society. Such programmes are actively disempowering and harm the students they apparently seek to ‘protect’. The pre-designed ideals of gender relations that are channelled through religious sex education programmes create a platform for young women to be indoctrinated into certain models of femininity characterised by motherhood over womanhood, emphasising purity, and chastity.
In Ireland, ideas about sex, sexuality and gender are articulated through sex education programmes. In the North, 92% of schools are controlled by religious division, while in the Republic, only 1% of secondary schools are controlled by non-religious institutions. Sex education in Ireland is an intensely contested concept. In the North, it continues to be taught as it was in the 1980s when it was first introduced in schools.
I went to a Catholic secondary school in West Belfast, a convent where religion dominated the ‘sex education’ programme we were taught (Learning for Love). It was more akin to religious indoctrination that any constructive information about sex, gender, and sexuality. Two distinct instances stand out for me. The first occurred around age fifteen when the topic of abortion was introduced to us through the GCSE Religion curriculum. We were shown the video ‘The Silent Scream’ which depicted abortion as murder. The video shows the procedure of a late-term abortion which is presented as the only manner a woman has an abortion. Rather than challenging the strictly religious and narrow ideals presented in the video, my religion teacher went on to praise the video and explain why abortion, according to God, was an abhorrent act of murder.
The second distinct memory was when we were shown the Pam Stenzel talks. Pam Stenzel is an American Christian speaker who tours around different schools to give a lecture on the importance of abstinence. The reason why the lecture stands out still is her dire metaphor which likens losing one’s virginity to sellotape - once it is removed it loses its value.
Though these two cases stand out due to their intense nature, the more subtle socialisation of traditional gender ideals were perhaps more detrimental. We were never taught about the pleasurable aspects of sex, nor was the classroom LGBTQ+ inclusive. Sex was also imposed on us as something that is given to us rather than an act to enjoy and be equally a part of. I think that these more subtle acts of omitting female pleasure, sexuality and not challenging conservative gender roles continue to be the issues facing sex education in Ireland because they reinforce a pervasive culture of silence and guilt with regards to female sexuality.
Recently announced changes are long-overdue. But while women across Ireland cheer the recent announcement that abortion rights and equal marriage will be introduced if Stormont is not up and running by 21st October, we still have a long way to go. Sex education is a major part of this, but continues to be overlooked or undermined. It has the opportunity to be radical and demonstrate a critical approach to ideas of pleasure, sexuality, gender ideals and be LGBTQ+ inclusive. Activism has produced a remarkable victory for women’s rights, and I believe activism will bring about radical change in sex education too.