For the past few weeks, I’ve been aware that my social media was peppered with reminders to read, and comment on, the proposals for the next version of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Irish schools. The NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessments) offered ‘stake holders’ and members of the public – in other words everyone – a chance to make suggestions and submissions on the draft report.
Like a good citizen who has an interest – personally and professionally – with how sex and relationships are taught in schools, I cast a cold eye over the document. It’s neither a long, nor a difficult, read; the meat and potatoes of it is just 80 pages, and the language is very accessible. At the outset, the document informs us that the Minister for Education and Skills asked that the following be considered:
So far, so good. For too long, our non-heteronormative populations have been ignored in the arena of sex and relationship learning and teaching in Ireland. All the issues listed in the document are ones which must be addressed and I’m delighted to see them getting the attention they deserve.
I’m troubled, though, by so much of what is not mentioned – and I’m not the only one. The other day, I was chatting with Dr Clíona Saidléar, Executive Director of the RCNI, and it turned out we had the same concerns. There were issues we both felt should have been mentioned in the report that weren’t. Unsurprisingly, our lists were similar. Between us, we came up with the following list of what we feel should have been included, but wasn’t:
- Victim blaming
- Sexual abuse
- Reporting – how to deal with a report, mandatory reporting etc.
It’s all very well to say we need to talk about consent, but consent is about so much more than consent around sexual touch, or even non-sexual touch. Consent is about how we speak to each other. Asking permission before entering another’s space – whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – should be first nature to us. It should be as much a part of our accepted manners as saying ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘excuse me’.
With regard to developments in contraceptives, I am still shocked and bewildered by the fact that spermicidal jelly isn’t sold in Ireland. It makes me wonder why – is it because every sperm is sacred?! Nor is the Caya diaphragm available here. Again, I had to wonder why. Is it because they are one-size fits all and users can fit them themselves? I know many survivors of sexual assault would much prefer a non-hormonal contraceptive that they can fit and use without the interference of anyone else.
Healthy positive sexual expression and relationships are wonderful aims, but talking about them, and telling school-aged children that they’re a good idea isn’t going to be productive. They need to be modelled. Who is doing – or who might do – that for the kids?
Of course, safe use of the Internet, and social media are sensible, logical, necessary, and important matters to address. The problem in many households is that the adults are unaware of what their young people are accessing, how to protect their children from what – and who – they might encounter online, and how to have open, honest conversations about the Internet. Organisations like Zeeko – which offer talks in schools – can help with awareness, and navigation, of the http://www. Many of the responses to the ‘Internet Question’ are pornography-focused but there is so much more than porn on the internet, and there’s a lot of good there (here!), too.
Our non-hetero folks deserve to be recognised – but not fetishized, and I remain hopeful that the Department will engage suitably qualified members of these communities to inform and advise on curricula content.
As I mentioned earlier, though, my biggest concern is not what’s included in, but what’s been omitted from, the discussion. We can’t have a fully-informed, useful, educative, progressive conversation about relationships and sex if we don’t address the things that will be relevant to everyone: victim blaming, and misogyny – and things that will be relevant to more than one in four of our student population; sexual abuse, rape and incest. Teachers (and, indeed, other staff members) will need to be aware of how to handle disclosure. They will also need to know their obligations under mandatory reporting legislation. There also needs to be an awareness that at least one in four of our teachers will, themselves, have histories of abuse – and may, therefore, find discussions of same, and disclosure, very difficult.
I get the feeling that this invitation to discuss the RSE curriculum is very performative: That it’s an exercise in being seen to be doing the right thing rather than actually figuring out what the right thing is. We’re not taking a long, hard, look at what’s wrong with our current curriculum; at what crucial needs should be addressed, but aren’t. Saying ‘we need to talk about consent’ sounds good, but unless we talk about consent in all areas of our interactions with others – unless we talk about boundaries and feelings – we aren’t really looking at the issue properly. Saying we need to have a ‘national conversation’ about pornography sounds modern and edgy, but it’s meaningless without starting from a place of respect for women – which we don’t have, and which we can’t have in a society as patriarchal and as misogynistic as the one we currently live in.
It’s all very well to talk about ‘having conversations’ and ‘improving curricula’ but if all those conversations and curricula are going to do is enforce the current culture, then they are just exercises in breath- and money-wasting. In order for any improvements we might consider making to actually be made, we first need to change our culture. We need to change our attitudes to victims; we need to acknowledge that most sexual abuse happens within the home. We need to discuss how we treat people – how bullying, manipulation, and coercion aren’t acceptable behaviours. That’s only going to happen if we adults change how we treat others – including (especially) children and model the behaviour we want and expect. Sex is part of life. Sexual relationships are part of life. If we want our young people to have healthier attitudes towards sex, and their sexual relationships, we need to show them what we mean, not lecture them about what we want them to do.