If you went to school in Ireland in the ’80s and ’90s, your sex education was probably, well, let’s just be polite and call it negligible. In my north Dublin suburban convent, we got a few videos and lectures about the mechanics of the whole reproductive thing and then, in sixth year, a whole day devoted to some nice people from the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council telling us about various forms of contraception (oh, the irony!) while trying to pretend we shouldn’t ever use any of it. I felt a bit sorry for them, actually, as you could tell they were all kind of liberal and wished they could just give us some practical advice.
Anyway, all our useful information came from the problem pages of Just Seventeen, which would actually tell you about stuff like if you could get pregnant without having penetrative sex (the answer: yes) and would constantly reiterate the importance of using condoms. The fact that condom use wasn’t stressed in our schools at a time when AIDS was still pretty much an automatic death sentence still horrifies me (although it could have been worse – at my partner’s school, none other than Father Michael Cleary turned up and said, and I quote, “I’ve never had sex, but I imagine having sex with a condom would be like having a bath with a raincoat on”. Oh, yes).
I was pissed off about all that at the time, but what also, in retrospect, makes me really angry is the fact that girls were simply not told about their own bodies. It’s not like I wanted any of our teachers to hand out the hand-mirrors in class, or anything, but the level of ignorance in which I can only say we were knowingly kept is ridiculous. The only images most of us had seen of female genitalia were on the Tampax instruction leaflet, which strangely didn’t say “and this bit up there is the only part of the human body whose sole purpose is giving you pleasure. Enjoy! Oh, and it’s the only way 50-60% of you will ever have an orgasm. So it’s probably a good thing that you know (a) that it exists and (b) where exactly it is”. Trusty Just Seventeen would mention the clitoris, but was kind of vague about the details, which left my 15 year old self confusing it with the G-spot and thinking it was somewhere near my cervix. It took me several years and a very talented young man to discover the truth.
Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to see this interesting piece in the Guardian on Friday about the state of sex ed in the UK, which said that in a new sex-ed video aimed at pre-teens, they might actually be given some useful information about themselves:
What makes me smile is the inclusion of the clitoris in the body diagrams, along with the information that sometimes it, like the penis, can get hard and “feel nice”. Maybe this generation of girls won’t be still looking for theirs in their 20s, like I was.
Yay! But of course, that’s in the UK, not here, and the state of our sex education is even less progressive. I know that it’s moved on here since the early ’90s, but it’s still pretty crap, and still seems to be confined to little more than the bare biological facts of reproduction. There isn’t much, or indeed anything, about female orgasms (or, heaven forfend, masturbation). In fact, today’s Irish sex-ed don’t seem to the even feature STIs, as some teenagers seem utterly unaware of their existence, let alone the fact that while HIV positive people can now live for decades in excellent health, AIDS is still uncurable, all STIs are pretty revolting, and condoms are just as important as they were 20 years ago.
Of course, lack of this sort of biological knowledge wasn’t the only thing missing from our classes about sex. Back in the early ’90s, the possibility that some of the girls sitting in our school hall being told about the coil (!) actually fancied girls was not even considered. More teenagers than ever are coming out these days, which is a huge advance on our day, but homophobic bullying is still rife in 79% of schools, according to a DCU study. While the Department of Education launched a campaign against this a few years ago, in general they’re not really acknowledging the fact that not all pupils are straight, and that those who aren’t deserve respect, acknowledgement and support; in some cases supportive school staff are hampered by their school’s “Catholic ethos”. There are organisations like the absolutely brilliant BelongTo providing support and information for queer teens, but schools should be doing this too. I won’t hold my breath, though.
Some day, hopefully, Irish kids will get the responsible, useful sex education they deserve. In the meantime, I’ll hope they’re discovering sites like the fantastic Scarleteen and managing to learn a bit more than we did. And at least they don’t have to worry about Father Michael Cleary turning up and pretending he’d never had sex. So that’s a plus, anyway.