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Posts Tagged ‘sex education’

This morning my colleague P treated us to a glorious impression of his 15 year old son, slightly worse for wear and trying to pass off being mouldy sodden drunk as ‘I ate a bad curry, Dad’. Apparently the young offender had been out with friends and got their hands on some booze. P wasn’t impressed but knew there wasn’t a whole lot of point punishing him just then. Apart from anything else the lad was green, sweating and well on his way to a punishment far greater than his annoyed if slightly bemused father could ever contrive. Faced with his son slumped in an armchair and slightly slurring ‘I’m fiiiine, Da’ in the optimistic belief that he could actually pull this off, P decided to engage him in a full length conversation just to see him squirm; I’m told this is one of the perks of fatherhood.

After a while, the conversation took a turn in which P asked if there were girls down there drinking with them. His son gingerly admitted to their presence. P said something along the lines of ‘well would you please be careful and don’t do anything silly, because you’re too young to be a father and I’m way too young to be a grandfather’. His son muttered something back at him and P decided to pursue it. He asked the lad if he needed any condoms and was greeted with the spectacle of his son writhing about on the chair and trying to fold his own limbs into himself in an effort to escape this mortifying question. P persevered until the desperate boy suddenly rooted about in his pocket and produced a condom which he waved about for a moment and squirreled away again. His father was both shocked and relieved.

This scene met with a lot of amusement and curiosity in the office. “Aspirational condom, if ever there was one”, “Ya, check the sell-by-date – dead giveaway”. When asked if he’d followed through and inquired whether his son had actually ever had sex and if he’d used protection, P said ‘Jesus, no! I couldn’t believe I actually got that much out of him!’.

I have since wondered just how common these sideways, awkward facts-of-life conversations  between father and son actually are? I had ‘the talk’ with my Mam quite early on and didn’t really have a problem asking her to explain things I didn’t understand. I don’t recall a specific conversation about contraception with her, good Catholic girls having no need for such things etc, but I think had I enquired frankly I’d have been told frankly. I’ve since spoken to other men about how and from whom they learned the facts of life and the existence of contraception. Both said they learned nothing either at home or at school about contraception. Nothing. “Most of it was innuendo from the lads. Just sniggers and stuff we saw on tv”.

What were readers’ experiences, the whos and whens? Do you believe girls and boys are treated differently when it comes to communicating sexual matters?

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It Keeps Coming Up, Anyhow

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.

Salt 'n' Pepa, where were you when we needed you?

Salt 'n' Pepa, where were you when we needed you?

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.

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