Sex Education is a topic that is hotly debated in Northern Ireland. Writing about her experiences the former Alliance party candidate, Kate Nicholl argues for a different approach to the issue.
I went to a conservative, religious, rural Zimbabwean primary school, where extra-curricular classes for girls included Young Ladies Club – a place where you learnt to embroider, match your clothes and talk about what sort of wife you hoped to be. So it was perhaps surprising that on one particular issue my school was pretty progressive. When we turned 11, we started “Life skills” where different mums took a weekly class – these discussions may have been heavily influenced by material from the Oprah Winfrey magazines… But they allowed us to talk about relationships, the future, racism, things we struggled with – and we talked about sex. By the late 1990s it was estimated that 25% of Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 were living with HIV, and the 1999 Aids Policy meant we quite rightly began learning about the risks and how to mitigate them from a very young age.
I found it strange when I moved to Belfast (a place where the electricity and phone lines worked – and Young Ladies Club was not a thing) that the very first mention of sex was in a biology classroom. Even more surprising? We were 15 years old. Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) is a statutory element of the school curriculum, but there is no standard pattern to the provision of RSE in schools. The Family Planning Association has a great fact sheet and gives a breakdown on what the Education Department has done so far and how current provision stands (Kate’s brief summary: it’s up to the schools to decide just how much they’re willing to teach): It’s not just Northern Ireland that’s behind, today the House of Commons has its second reading of the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) Bill which would require the education secretary to ensure that PSHE becomes a statutory requirement for all state-funded schools. If John O’Dowd’s reading this – the bill also includes provision that RSE and “education on ending violence against women and girls” be included within schools’ PSHE programmes, something similar would be awesome.
My intuition always told me we should be taught more from a younger age, but it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve fully appreciated just how necessary updating and unifying our approach to RSE actually is. I work in an office which hosts work experience students on a monthly basis – invariably the question is raised about what changes they would like to see in their schools. Last month four sixteen year olds gave me identical independent answers: they wanted better sex ed. They all wanted to be able to discuss relationship and sex issues in an environment that was not restricted to clinical explanations or moral judgement. They wanted to talk about how they should help their friend whose boyfriend was a lot older than her and pressuring her to have sex, they wanted to talk about how homophobic jokes made them uncomfortable because their uncle was gay – not all of them felt comfortable discussing these issues with their family and biology textbooks and inspirational quotes about abstinence weren’t providing the answers. When I was at school I knew a girl who lost her virginity without telling the guy it was her first time because they were scared of being called frigid. I knew kids who only felt they could come out as gay after they went to uni. I remember a teenage couple who had a crisis pregnancy because they placed far too much faith in gravity… this was the reality. We weren’t given the information we needed then and anecdotally it doesn’t sound like there’s been much improvement.
If you think young people will only have sex because someone teaching them put that idea in their head, then (said nicely) you’re clearly deluded. A 1993 WHO review of 35 sex education studies in the USA, Europe, Australia, Mexico and Thailand found no evidence that sex education leads to earlier or increased sexual activity. I am also convinced that the only guaranteed result in avoiding the topics of gender identity or sexual orientation is that it will perpetuate intolerance. What is there to fear from age appropriate education? If we’re serious about creating the sort of society which values the importance of tolerance and respect – which promotes consent, health and safety – then we need open, honest, regular, age appropriate discussions. And that should be compulsory. Just ask Oprah.