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The Editors: It’s time to stop making sex education weird

The proposed new curriculum for sex education for junior cycle students will, according to the reporting of the Irish Independent, “ tackle pornography, with reference to the online world, and the sharing of sexual images. It will then further deal with consent and matters such as gender stereotyping.”

More concerningly, for many parents, the focus of the new curriculum will change:

The Department of Education has also concluded that the existing approach to such education in schools was “heavily concerned with the risks and dangers associated with relationships and sexuality, and did not allow for sufficient discussion of the positive, healthy and enjoyable aspects”.

Many parents – and indeed, many teachers – will be horrified by the proposals that are being put forward. They are right to be so.

It is clear, from the quoted paragraph above, that the Department intends for junior cycle students – 13 to 16 years old – to be given what progressive sex educators refer to as a “sex positive” education. In theory, that education is designed to eliminate various stigmas around sex, and tackle feelings of shame and embarrassment. It seeks to present sexual relationships, in all their forms, as normal, healthy, and enjoyable, so long as they are based on something called “consent”.

The problem is that this understanding of human relationships is entirely warped. And it is warped because it divorces sexual relationships from any sense of obligation, or consequence. And we do not speak here of pregnancy.

Sexual relationships involve at least two people. But they are, and must be understood to be, about much more than simple “consent”. A person who consents to a five-minute sexual experience, for example, may not be consenting to the six months of a broken heart that follows, or the feelings of being used and discarded that can often arise, or the anxiety and feelings of inadequacy that may follow a rejection. When you reduce sexuality to a pleasurable activity that can safely be enjoyed once consent has been obtained, you are not adding to the human experience, but deleting vital parts of it. This is something that generations of humans have understood.

It is, in fact, the very reason why society has developed so many courtship rituals and procedures and expectations around sex. It is why we have, over the centuries, stigmatized bad behavior. In the liberal, progressive mind, all this stuff has always been about “shame” and “repression”. But the truth is – and eternally will be – that these stigmas and rituals are about protection. Not protection of society, but protection of the individual. “No sex before marriage”, for example, is a societal and cultural rule often understood in modern times to simply be about enforcing a rigid sexual morality. But the intention of it – and the reason it has been adopted in so many societies, across so many religions and cultures – has always been to provide security to women and protect them from the sexually exploitative instincts of some men.

­­­­­It is true that in a diverse and pluralist society, people will have different values, and different cultures. It is ironic, then, that the state and those responsible for education in this area seem determined to impose a one-idea-fits-all version of sexual education for the nation’s young people.

We live, undoubtedly, in a world of changing values, and new challenges for young people. Just two decades ago, pornography was relatively unavailable. It is now ubiquitous. It has undeniably shaped, and warped, our culture, in areas ranging from beauty standards, to what is considered “normal” in relationships between teenagers. As the culture has changed, our leaders and educators have found it easier, apparently, to float along with the worst elements of that cultural change rather than to challenge it. There is only one thing that teenagers need to know about pornography: That it does not depict normal human relationships. That it is to a normal human relationship what Star Trek is to space travel: Fictional.

Education is about instilling values, as well as information. When it comes to sexual relationships, the value that should be instilled is not “consent”, but “responsibility”. A person who enters into a sexual relationship with another person assumes responsibility for them. They are responsible for the child that might be born. But they are also responsible for that other person’s feelings, and health, and life. Sexual relationships are not about what you can get from the other person, but about what you must give to them: a sense of duty, respect, kindness, partnership and decency. “Getting consent” is the smallest, and least, of your obligations. Generations of human beings have understood this, which should make us pause and consider the wisdom of discarding those ideas today.

Above all else, though, these proposals are simply weird. It is not the state’s job to teach children about pornography, or consent, or any of these values. Those are, and should remain, the duties and prerogatives of parents.

And what good comes from the state and teachers exploring the issues around pornography and consent with teenagers? Once again, as so often in Irish society, this feels more like it is about making adults feel hip and progressive than it does about a sincere concern for the welfare of the young.

Besides, no education about consent can prepare a teenager for their first broken heart. In too many cases, all this value system does is provide people with a ready-made excuse for their own bad behaviour. “But she consented” is not enough. And teaching our children that it is enough will end in tears for far, far, too many of them.

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