It’s time to tell youth about sex

Today, with the launch of Healthy Ireland’s Sexual Health Strategy & Action Plan, we take a look at Mary’s September 2004 article, ‘It’s time to tell youth about sex,’ where Mary discusses the importance of implementing adequate sex education for young people.

It’s time to tell youth about sex

September 23rd, 2004

It was somewhat ironic at the weekend to see former Taoiseach John Bruton extolling Home Rule and deriding the role of the 1916 Rising in gaining Irish independence. Put that against his statement made just over a year ago, that “we spent 200 years fighting for our independence and we get the British Family Planning Association to help us with a sex booklet”. Aside from the dubious historical accuracy of this latter view, it does point to double standards to suit the occasion. Mr Bruton was at the time campaigning against a new sex education initiative from the North Eastern Health Board, designed to provide teenagers with an unambiguous and non-judgmental information on sexuality. Adapted for Ireland, it was based on tried and trusted measures adopted in the UK. The overwhelming need for such an approach is highlighted by the research published this week from Crisis Pregnancy Agency (CPA). It shows that younger people have more unprotected sex, more crisis pregnancies, and a higher incidence of abortion than any other age group. Combine that with a “profoundly worrying” lack of knowledge about their fertility and about the morning-after pill, and it is clear that there is a major lacuna in the methods used to provide young people with information about sexuality. In a society where pregnancy has so often become a political and religious football, the value of the CPA-commissioned research is incalculable. For instance, we are at last beginning to see abortion presented in the context of real decisions and choices made by women, as opposed to a purely moral and political issue. Seen from that perspective, the figure of 90 per cent of those under the age of 45 (the sample parameter) now in favour of abortion in some circumstances is evidence that Irish people are finally embarking on the painful process of facing reality. Also interesting were the findings that 95 per cent of women who had had an abortion believed that this was the correct choice for them, and that two-thirds had no regrets.

A second study commissioned by the CPA pinpoints the clear pattern of woefully inadequate sex education. Respondents in this survey (young women between the ages of 19 and 34) spoke of sex education being delivered in schools by teachers either of religion or biology, with an emphasis on the purely biological or on avoiding sex outside of marriage. There was little talk of the kind of choices to be made by young people in engaging in safe sex and using contraception. It is clearly one area where the structure of our education system, delivered in the main under Catholic Church control, is serving to increase the risk of crisis pregnancy among young people. A glaring example of the kind of problems in this area was the fate of the North Eastern Health Board’s brave new sex education initiative for young people, the one John Bruton took such exception to. In collaboration with the Irish Family Planning Association, the NEHB was about to launch a number of new booklets designed specifically to appeal to young people between the ages of 12 and 16. 4Boys and 4Girls contained all the information most of us would have killed to have had at that age, presented in a humorous fashion, using uninhibited cartoon illustrations.

But the initiative was killed off before it even started. Various Catholic organisations damned it from a height. Some of the statements were extraordinary – “cheap pornography” and “utter trash”, screamed the Catholic Secondary Parents’ Association. John Bruton put the boot in. The health board, he said, “should not present a hedonistic view of life”. He criticised one of the books for not stating that it is a criminal offence to have sex with someone below the age of consent. Mr Bruton neglected to mention, of course, that the law on age of consent is hopelessly muddled – for girls it is 17, but for boys it is 15. Even more confusing is that a 15-year-old boy can consent to heterosexual sex, but he has to be 17 before he can consent to homosexual sex. Add to this that you can legally marry at 16, and the mind begins to boggle.

You could of course point all this out to young people, but they would likely only end up as befuddled as the rest of us. And the great danger, alluded to by a number of studies, is that if you emphasise the criminality of under-age sex, young people may become afraid to seek either contraception or help in the case of crisis pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection. Thanks to the head-in-the-sand brigade, the NEHB’s initiative remains shelved. Now, in the light of the CPA research, there is an urgent need to revive it, and to extend it as a national programme, distributing the booklets to schools, youth organisations, parents and, of course, to young people themselves. They in particular have a fundamental right to be informed rather than preached at, to be allowed to protect themselves rather than stumble about in ignorance.

This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.

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