RSE In Irish Schools

 

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:

RSE

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
  • Misogyny
  • Sexual abuse
  • Rape
  • Reporting – how to deal with a report, mandatory reporting etc.
  • Incest

 

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.

 

 

In Favour of Intolerance

Image result for intolerance

Fourteen-year-old Ana Kriegal was sexually assaulted and murdered on the 14th of May last year. Two boys, aged thirteen at the time, were found guilty of the crimes against her.

Since the verdict was reached last week, there have been many column inches devoted to the case. There has been mention of how this is an ‘unusual’ case, how it shows the ‘dark side’ of Ireland. Such statements, however, are unhelpful and untrue. This is Ireland. This is the Ireland I grew up, this is the Ireland I now live in. I have seen people wonder how we ‘get boys like this’, but the truth is we create them.

Lack of education around pornography and sexual relationships has been cited as part of the problem – and I don’t discount these claims. The problem is, however, that it’s too easy to point to the obvious and suggest that it provides the complete picture. It doesn’t.

 

Irish society creates and condones the behaviour of these boys, and boys like them. Because – don’t kid yourself – these boys are not an aberration. Their attitudes towards, and treatment of, women and girls, is not unusual in Irish society. And it’s their attitudes that fuelled their behaviour. Yes, murder is still unusual in Ireland. Thirteen-year-olds murdering people is also still an unusual phenomenon, but thirteen-year-olds sexually assaulting girls is not nearly as unusual as you might like to think.

If Ana had ‘just’ been sexually assaulted and not murdered, think how the media and the public would have reacted. Without a doubt, she would have been unmercifully victim-blamed, in exactly the same way as every other victim of rape and sexual assault over the age of ten is blamed for their own victimisation. At this point, I would like to respectfully suggest that we need a cultural sea change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators of sexual violence, rather than their victims.

The problem is not with individual children or even individual families – the problem is with the whole wider society. I know this will not be a particularly popular statement, but – as my friend and colleague, Dr Jessica Eaton says – ‘our systems won’t change by protecting ourselves from our own shortcomings’.  And we have shortcomings galore in this society.

Bullying is endemic in Irish culture. We have learnt that Ana Kriegal was bullied online, and in person. People – adults – were aware that she was being bullied, and they chose to do nothing. Before she started secondary school, her resource teacher told Ana’s parents that she was worried for the child’s welfare. Ana was suicidal before she left primary school. She was bullied by children a few years older than she before she even started secondary school.

Nothing effective was done to stop the bullying because we tolerate bullying in Ireland. It flourishes in Irish schools, in Irish companies, in Irish businesses, in Irish institutions. It is a top-down phenomenon, and it thrives because our systems support it: Look at how we treat whistle-blowers, and how we treat victims of bullying.

We neither teach nor model empathy, kindness, and compassion. Such traits are seen as weaknesses. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other that ‘Boys will be boys’, that victims need to ‘toughen up’, be ‘less sensitive’, and learn to ‘cope’.  They are told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, even though every person with a pulse knows that simply isn’t true.

The word ‘resilience’ is also bandied about – as if resilience is a good thing, instead of another stick with which to beat victims. In case you’re confused, the word ‘resilience’ suggests that whatever circumstances exist to cause a person’s upset are established; and it is, therefore, incumbent upon an individual to look after themselves. As if the display of symptoms is synonymous with weakness. As if ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness’ are interchangeable.

Yes, Boy A and Boy B caused Ana Kriegal’s death, but we caused them. We – as a society – taught them how to behave.  We – as a society – support bullying, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, rape-culture, and male entitlement.

Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit.  Specific to sexual assault, the lack of empathy and feelings of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. Research informs us that when entitled individuals do not get what they want, they become hostile or violent.

We live in a society where we attempt to induce outrage and empathy by saying things like ‘Imagine if she were your daughter / sister / niece / cousin / friend’: By so doing, we rob the victim of her personhood. By insinuating that we can only see the victim as worthwhile or empathetic if we can, somehow, re-imagine her as someone like someone we may know speaks volumes about our inability to view a person as worthwhile simply because they exist. That, alone, should be enough without additional qualifiers – real, or imagined.

We need to create a society that is intolerant of bullying, misogyny, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, male entitlement, and rape myths. We can only do that by modelling such intolerance.

 

 

A Surge of Pain

Image result for woman in labour

 

I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.

 

‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:

As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc.  Their words were incongruent with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.

I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.

Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.

Birth Trauma Awareness Week

Traumatised Woman Eyes - Edited

Content Warning: Sexual Assault / Sexual Abuse / Incest

This week is Birth Trauma Awareness week.

For many women, the birth itself is traumatic because of how they are treated during labour and birth. For women who have been sexually abused as children, however, labour and birth can compound the trauma they have suffered.

While she was growing up, Orla’s* father ‘played’ with her by playing ‘tickling’ with her. He would chase her, catch her, and then hold her down tickle her, kiss her, and – as she hit puberty –  touch her breasts, buttocks, and genitals.

Like many people who are abused over a period of time, Orla started to recognise the ‘cues’ from her father that an abusive incident was coming. She would try, desperately, to get away from him, but she was never successful. Orla felt helpless, but still, when he tickled her, she laughed. This would result in him calling her ‘a little flirt’ and saying things like ‘you’re just pretending you don’t want me to do it.’

Orla couldn’t get away from her dad because he was too strong. Her laughter would give away to tears, and then to crying, and eventually to screaming. Finally, he would stop.

When Orla grew up, she did not look back on her father’s actions as abusive, because it was labelled as ‘play’, and she remembers laughing at the time.

Years afterwards, however, when she was in labour with her first child, she was hooked up to a foetal monitor, had a canula inserted, and a blood pressure cuff. She had a panic attack on account of the restrictions on her movements. Her reaction seemed disproportionate until later, when Orla connected the events during childbirth with being restrained while her father abused her.

Like Orla, many women are surprised by the degree of their distress over routine aspects of maternity care. For abuse survivors, distressing or traumatic events can bring up the same feelings of helplessness and fear that they felt with the original abuse. It can be difficult to understand, however, why seemingly innocuous or helpful interventions can also bring up feelings of helplessness and fear. If the trauma of the original abuse was never correctly addressed, they are at risk for re-traumatisation, and may end up  suffering from chronic post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

Much of this distress can be alleviated for pregnant women survivors of CSA if, before labour, they have an opportunity to explore some of the features (events, procedures, and care policies) of childbirth that might bear similarities to their abuse, and to plan strategies for avoiding, or coping with, them.

Women often dread the prospect of deeply exploring the origins of abuse-related symptoms. Once they do take that step, with the support of understanding health-care practitioners / birthworkers, they usually feel relieved and unburdened of guilt and responsibility. Our capacity for healing is enormous, through it requires hard work perseverance, and courage. Finding the time, and the energy, for that is hard at any stage – harder again when you’re pregnant. A birthworker who brings compassion, and understanding of the trauma of CSA will make the biggest of differences to her client.

 

*Not her real name

Baby Boxes Won’t Raise Birth Rates

Special Delivery....!

(This is not a Finnish baby box!)

 

A week ago, Katherine Zappone announced baby boxes would be given to all new parents in an attempt to increase the birth rate in Ireland.

Baby boxes were first introduced in Finland in 1938, when infant mortality stood at 65 per 1,000. The boxes contained clothes, nappies, a mattress, picture books and a teething toy. With the mattress in the bottom, the box doubled as a bed. They were introduced as part of a drive to bring down Finland’s infant mortality rate.

In Ireland, in 2018, however, they’re, at best, cute, and at worst, a waste of money.  This government would be better serving their remit if they poured support into children who are already here. Here is an incomplete list of thing the government could better do with money to help the children who are already here:

  • Lone parents need better supports, and clearer pathways back to employment / education that won’t penalise them.
  • We need better supports for adults who were abused as children, so that they can parent better.
  • We need more midwives, so pregnant people can have continuity of care.
  • We need better mental health care for children.
  • Our education system needs a complete overhaul (including better sex and relationship education).
  • We need to provide permanent homes for the 3,000+ homeless children in Ireland at the moment.

 

We need to value the children we already have before we start spouting off about how to look like we’re making life better for children who aren’t even here yet. It is true that raising children is expensive. People are putting off having children, or having more children, if they are unsure that they will be able to mange to keep those children safe, healthy, housed, fed, and educated. A few nappies, and a couple of babygros in the bottom of a cardboard box are not going to encourage people to have more babies – but here are a few things that might:

  • Affordable housing and I don’t (necessarily) mean state-subsidised housing, but houses where mortgages are easy to pay on one salary.
  • Education that is aligned with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the education of the child ‘shall be directed to the development of the child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential. Currently, such education is not available in Ireland.
  • An improved maternity system, with women at the centre of care. I have spoken with many women who – having been traumatised in Irish hospitals – are too afraid to have another child.
  • Valuing the caring work that parents do: Currently, parents on social welfare are receiving €31 per week per child. If those same children were in foster care, the government would happily hand over between €325 and €352 per child per week to the foster parents.

Fix the leaky roof, and crumbling walls, of the house you live in before you start planning a fancy garden shed.

Unsolicited Pictures – A Follow-Up

Last week, I wrote about unsolicited dick pics, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of them. To be clear, I have absolutely no judgement around solicited penis pictures. If sending nudies is part of the sex-play between two consenting adults, I hope it works well for them.

 

The unsolicited pictures, and the sending of them, however, started a conversation on Twitter, and a number of women asked me why men sent these pictures. Well, as a woman, I have no idea. So I decided to ask the men who send them. Now, this is in no way a rigorous piece of scientific research. It’s a Twitter poll. There were 74 responses, and one of them was from a woman who clicked by accident and bumped up option two by one number. There may have been more people who clicked accidentally, but I have no way of knowing. All I can tell you is that, from the first few responses, the results were fairly consistent.

 

So, here’s what I got:

Twitter Dick Pic Poll

As you can see, 8% of respondents said they send these pictures because they think their penises are gorgeous, with 14% wanting the person on the receiving end to express admiration for the penis they are presented with. I must admit, that I thought the percentage of those in the first category would be higher. In my experience, men think their reproductive organs are beautiful (most women don’t – penises are only thought of aesthetically pleasing by women when they have an emotional attachment to the man on the end of it). Again, I’m surprised that so few men admitted to sending unsolicited penis pictures because they want their members to be admired.

 

The final two responses are the ones that worry me most. Sixteen percent of respondents admit to sending unsolicited pictures to shock the person who would receive it. There is something disturbing about a man wanting to shock a woman with a picture of his genitals. It’s an expression of a desire to exert power over the receiver, which is distasteful, to say the least.

 

Finally, the majority of men – 62% of them – who responded admitted sending unsolicited dick pics in the hope that the woman who receives them will send back a photograph of her genitals. I feel duty-bound to let these men know that that’s not how it works. Women are likely to be disturbed and upset if men send unsolicited pictures of their genitals, and really not inclined to reciprocate.

 

If you want to send pictures of your willies, guys, please afford the intended recipient the courtesy of ensuring that it will be a welcome photograph – and don’t expect one in return. Instead, wait until one is offered.