Sex Education In Ireland Is Constructive And Practical Resource For Younger Generation

Female sexual experiences continue to be dismissed, forced into fixed criteria, and discussed as a frivolous afterthought rather than a core aspect of health and well-being.

Olivia Teahan
Mar 09, 2023 06:00 IST
Women Sexual Desires
I have very few memories of formal sex education in school. My first-level education began at the turn of the millennium when ‘Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE)’ became legally required in Irish curriculums. One morning, when I was maybe fifteen years old, a sex educator arrived to lead our class. I can distinctly remember the atmosphere she created that day: relaxed, engaging, and supportive, rather than wagging a metaphorical finger - as is often the case in sex education.

The class was influenced by her ease and comfort with discussing sex. It encouraged us to learn about sexual autonomy, enjoyment and health, and to understand bodies and sexual experiences with less rigidity and shame. In stark contrast to this, I also recall a lesson from a teacher of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), who flippantly told the class that “bisexual people are just confused.”

While some of Ireland’s younger generations today have more expansive perspectives and liberal attitudes on sexual pleasure and orientation, there remains a widespread lack of inclusive resources and acceptance of sexual health rights. Middle-aged and older women continue to be excluded from the sexual health discourse and services and are almost always excluded from sexual pleasure discourse. These exclusions or objectification are also a reality for many girls and women with disabilities or illnesses, working-class women, ethnic minorities and sexual minorities.

Irish history is fraught with sexual totalitarianism, which has often resulted in women’s pleasure and consent being ignored and weaponised. Many people have been deprived of evidence-based RSE, and have a limited understanding of female anatomy and sexuality. It should not come as a surprise then that girls and women struggle to:

  • understand their body or their sexual desires,
  • confidently and respectfully discuss what they want with a partner,
  • be satisfied and confident in their sexual experiences and conversations, and
  • be sexually healthy.

This creates a range of issues for women’s well-being, as research has shown that being able to communicate with a partner about sexual desires and sexual experiences is associated with sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction (MacNeil & Byers, 2005; Byers, 2011; Montesi, Conner, Fauber, Kim, Gordon et al., 2010; Jones, Robinson & Seedall, 2018). Access to relevant RSE is even more limited for lesbian and bisexual girls, and those under the LGBTI+ umbrella more generally (Farrell, Corcoran & Davoren, 2020).


Suggested Reading: Sex Education For Kids Labelled Immoral, But Sexual Harassment Is Not?

The term “orgasm gap”  was coined by Dr Laurie Mintz - author of Becoming Cliterate, to highlight the statistically lower frequency of orgasms experienced by women compared to men.  Dr Mintz rightly puts this down to “cultural ignorance of the clitoris”. However there is of course much more to sex than orgasms, and Dr Emily Nagoski prefers to approach sex education with “pleasure the measure” of sexual well-being. She notes that “ not about what you do in bed or how many orgasms you have, how long it lasts, or who you do it with, or how frequently you do it,” but that simply experiencing sexual pleasure should be the main priority.


Chanel Contos, founder of the Teach Us Consent campaign, has highlighted the dangers of delivering sex education which does not tackle the myths around:

  • sex being shameful for girls and women, and
  • the role of heterosexual boys and men being to convince or hoodwink girls and women.

we are to fix the problem, we have to understand the truth at the centre of purity culture: In any community where sexual purity is an ideal, there will be fewer social repercussions for teenage boys who rape than for teenage girls who have consensual sexual interactions with different people.”


Sex Education In Ireland Is Constructive And Practical Resource For Younger Generation

These gendered roles that play out in early sexual experiences are often directly related to how someone is socialised and educated (or uneducated) from youth. They can also apply to people who are gender nonconforming depending on how an individual was socialised as a child or teen. Research shows that youths who experience socioeconomic disadvantage are less likely to access sexual health resources (Nolan & Smyth, 2020).

Furthermore, research suggests that adolescents who have experienced sexual assault are disproportionately more likely to experience mental health issues, and the risk of assault is higher where the young person has faced socioeconomic disadvantage or special educational needs. (Khadr, Clarke, Wellings, Villalta, Goddard et al., 2018.)


In 2021, the Irish Government outlawed ‘intimate image abuse’, i.e. the sharing of an intimate image online or by any other means, without the consent of the person in the image (Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, Ireland). This legislation is one of many crucial initiatives to combat sexual abuse and protect sexual health rights, particularly for young people in Ireland.

Streamlined sex education in Ireland has also been met with a number of practical challenges. Parents and teachers are not provided with adequate resources, training and support to educate young people; many parents and school management teams are driven by exam results, meaning topics assigned to SPHE are not always prioritised. (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (Ireland), 2019; Farrell, Corcoran & Davoren, 2020; Maunsell, Bourke, Costello, Cullen & Machowska-Kosciak, 2021).

Irish children are now - sometimes unintentionally - accessing pornographic images and videos at a young age. How can children healthily process this, and how can parents support their children in this instance? As it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate access to pornographic material, porn literacy has become an important tool (Dawson, Nic Gabhainn & MacNeela, 2019).


Though the idea of providing information about porn in a school setting has raised concerns among parents, porn literacy is a vital tool for helping young people to understand the many differences between porn and real-life sex, including ethical issues and the lack of consent shown in porn, and the focus on exaggerated physical performance (e.g. erection; ejaculation; squirting).

The introduction of gender identity to RSE curriculums has also become a divisive sticking point, with contextualised, balanced discourse at times is all but lost. In many of the various aspects of that discourse, parents and teachers are concerned about doing what they deem or hope to be the right thing for their child or student. Sadly we are a long way from successfully using RSE to heal the scars left by Ireland’s sexually repressive history, in a present-day heavy with information overload.

Female sexual experiences continue to be dismissed, forced into fixed criteria, and discussed as a frivolous afterthought rather than a core aspect of health and well-being. Where the Internet has become the primary sex educator for many young people, it is vital that context and facts are clarified, and that qualified educators and guardians are supported in delivering relevant, up-to-date information to youth.

While there is an ongoing need for relevant sexual health support across all demographics, sex education in Ireland is slowly becoming a more constructive and practical resource for younger generations. The shame attached to discussing sexual experiences  - whether it’s with a partner, a friend, a guardian, or a healthcare worker - is harmful to wellbeing, and evidence-based RSE can be a powerful tool in dissipating that shame, and fostering improved sexual health, better relationships, and more satisfying sex.

Views expressed are the author's own. 

#Ireland #sex education