RSE reforms are not just welcome, they are also necessary
Historically, the Irish have been very tight-lipped when it comes to sex and sexuality. And while we have indeed seen meaningful progress in this regard over the years, in many ways we are a country still reeling from decades of Catholic Church influence, and as such, there is a lingering (albeit slowly dissipating) sentiment that certain topics are no-go areas.
That is not to say that we haven’t come a long way in many respects. Take contraception as an example: we’ve gone from taking years to inch our way towards fully legalising contraception in 1992, to this year establishing the provision of free contraception for young women aged seventeen to twenty-five. We have matured past only preaching abstinence and the practice of fearmongering in place of safe sex education, and it has resulted in undeniable progress and the reduction of unplanned pregnancies and STIs.
However, as much as our attitudes around topics like sex and sexuality have evolved over the years, there remains a distance to overcome – something which was evidenced quite clearly by some of the reactions to the proposed reforms to the RSE (Relationship and Sexuality Education) syllabus, which were announced recently by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
The proposed reforms signal a major revamp for Ireland’s SPHE and RSE curriculum, with Junior Cert students to be educated about topics such as pornography, addiction, human sexuality, gender identity and consent. In the days since they were announced, many have welcomed the changes, praising the decision to commit to a comprehensive education programme designed to meet the needs of today’s young people, but the proposed reforms have also been met with a fair degree of controversy.
Obviously, this is not the case with all the proposed reforms – for example, the focus on educating students about consent and establishing boundaries has been widely welcomed. Despite the fact that consent is now much more widely discussed than ever (especially with the emergence of the ‘MeToo’ movement, etc), as recently as last year, a NUIG study found that a fifth of teenage boys “do not believe it is always necessary to gain consent before engaging in sexual activity with someone”. Sexual and gender-based violence remains a serious issue in Ireland, and so it is encouraging to see such importance being placed on educating young people about establishing consent and respecting others’ boundaries.
Any controversy that has arisen stems from the introduction of discussion topics such as pornography and LGBTQ+ education to the curriculum, with those opposing the reforms claiming that the inclusion of these topics is akin to schools encouraging students to seek out pornography or question their sexuality/gender identity when they otherwise wouldn’t.
In the case of pornography, this line of thinking feels familiar to old anti-conception arguments which maintain that by not teaching young people about safe sex, they will not want to have sex at all. The reality of things is that young people are going to either seek out or be exposed to explicit material online inevitably, whether or not it’s spoken about in schools. The difference is that by failing to have open discussions, students will not be properly educated about the safe use of the internet or about the misconceptions perpetrated by online pornography.
Meanwhile, there really doesn’t seem to be any grounds for the backlash against the inclusion of topics like gender identity and sex education for same-sex partners. I do not know one person my age who felt their school RSE programme adequately recognised LGBTQ+ issues, if at all, and besides doing a massive disservice to LGBTQ+ folk, the omission of discussion on these topics contributes to heterosexuality and being cisgender being regarding as the ‘default’.
The tight-lipped approach to RSE education that Ireland has carried in the past has only served to do a disservice to young people time and time again. However, while some of the backlash to these proposed reforms has been extremely disheartening, it is so great to see a more comprehensive RSE curriculum in the works for young people. There is so much good that can be done in having open, honest, and compassionate conversation on these topics, and the introduction of these reforms represents a welcome step in the right direction when it comes to tackling important issues at a ground level.