By Beth Healy
Currently, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in Northern Ireland is not standardised across the board, allowing schools to devise their own cirriculum which meets their school ‘ethos’, meaning different students are getting different information. In 2019, Research by Belfast Youth Forum with QUB’s Centre for Children’s Rights and Common Youth found that 72% of students felt that they had a right to receive RSE in school but that 73% said they had RSE ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ and 60% said that the RSE they did receive was “not very useful” or “not useful at all”. The gaps in RSE seem particularly present in Catholic schools and when it comes to issues surrounding identity, LGBTQ+ relationships, healthy relationships, consent and safe sex.
Lugh*, who identifies as non-binary and bisexual, found that their experience of RSE in school did not prepare them for their real-life experiences: “I think I realised that a lot of the things they were telling us about sex didn’t translate to the real, social world I was occupying.” At an all girls’ Catholic grammar school, Lugh describes their RSE as “non-existent”, explaining, “We didn’t learn about things like consent, or taking care of your sexual health… After some of the things I’ve gone through in my life, including an assault from someone of my same sex, I really wish I had.” University gave Lugh a chance to finally come out as bisexual, and to explore their gender identity freely: “I can’t imagine coming out in school. I never would have. We didn’t even talk about being gay in my year, I wouldn’t have trusted my year not to completely ostracise any young girl who would have had the courage to come out.”
Similarly, Emily* attended an all girls’ grammar school where RSE was “abstinence themed” and as a result, she also struggled to understand her identity: “I had to find out myself I was asexual through tumblr after being told that not wanting sex/children/being called frigid by my peers was something I’d grow out of.” She explains how school never felt like a place which encouraged questions, curiosity or openness surrounding RSE: “It was a Catholic school so abortion was off topic, no one was allowed to ask questions about sexuality.”
Phoebe Comiskey is the creator of Sex Education Reform NI, a podcast and Facebook page, which aims to draw awareness to the basic lack of RSE in NI schools: “Through the facebook page, I just want to provide a reminder everyday about how it’s just unacceptable – the negligent system that we have at the minute – and just reminding people as well that they are not alone and it’s not too late to educate yourself.” As Phoebe explains, better RSE in school would have a much wider effect than merely avoiding unwanted pregnancies and STDs: “an inclusive, all-encompassing, objective sex education lays the groundwork for so many other aspects of your life like how you communicate with others, how you view yourself, how you navigate personal relationships.”
“I think schools need to recognise that they have a duty of care, be they a Catholic school, a Protestant school, an integrated school, because it doesn’t matter your religious background, you’re still, as a young person, going to be exposed to sex everywhere… so you need to know what’s appropriate and what’s not to navigate life as a young person.”
Charlie* attended a co-ed, mixed gender school but he doesn’t remember any RSE lessons apart from learning about periods and reproduction in science. He comments on learning the most about sex through pornography: “As a young man first learning about sex through porn, when you go to have sex with someone, it sets unrealistic standards for what sex really is.” He continues, “It made sex feel like a performance in which you were constantly under pressure to deliver, but in reality it’s a connection between two people, and porn never really taught me that.” Charlie* is certainly not alone, with 94% of 11-16 year olds seeing porn online by aged 14, and 53% of young boys seeing it as a realistic depiction of sex. (BBC) The danger is that children and young people are having to find out about sex for themselves, from sources which are not aimed towards children, and this leads to dangerous outcomes. The cues that young people pick up from unrealistic sources like porn, TV and movies could lead to ideas about sex and relationships which are at best unrealistic, and at worst, unhealthy, toxic, and even abusive.
The good news is that things are already changing: Phoebe notes, “there are programmes and companies that are going into schools and are teaching good sex education and that’s so good to see.” These include Nexus, which is a charity supporting people in NI with sexual trauma, and they deliver unbiased, informative RSE talks to students in schools. Similarly, Common Youth is a charity which offers training for teachers to build the skills and knowledge required to deliver effective RSE to pupils. Whilst these charities are doing the vital work necessary to dismantle stigma surrounding sex, the burden shouldn’t fall entirely on their shoulders. As a society, there is so much we as individuals can do. Phoebe urges individual action: “we can teach young people from a really young age how to treat each other with respect… Introduce consent as young children are growing up and that can do absolute wonders.”
However, what is deeply needed is government intervention so that RSE in schools across NI can be standardised and compulsory. The resultant effect of a lack of unbiased, compulsory, comprehensive and standardised RSE in schools is that young people have grown up uninformed about their bodies, their identities and their choices. Good RSE benefits not only individuals but society: a better understanding of what sex really is leads to informed choices, improved self esteem, healthy, respectful relationships, and reduces incidences of sexual assault and violence.
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the sources.