The radical approach to sex education backed by the HSE

Pornography to be studied in class”, said the front page of the Irish Independent last week, which is alarming at first glance, but much depends on how this is done because some HSE-backed researchers believe porn can be both ‘ethical’ and ‘positive’.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is currently redesigning the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum for school, starting with Junior Certificate level.

Some of what is being taught in classrooms is already deeply concerning, and hopefully the Minister for Education will reject this approach.

The approach is exemplified by Sexual Health West, an organisation based in Galway, primarily funded by HSE West. The WISER (West of Ireland Sexuality Education Resource) team provides youth and community education on sexual health.

Grace Alice O’Shea is Relationship and Sexuality Educator at WISER and she recently authored “Sex Educated”, a guidebook for sexual education in schools and elsewhere, with extensive contributions from other members of WISER.

The book is based on “over thirty-years’ experience of delivering sex education in Ireland, working with tens of thousands of young people” and is addressed to teenagers and their educators.

On the back cover page there is the HSE logo and the endorsing words of President Michael Higgins: “I have no doubt that this publication will be an invaluable resource for our younger citizens, and for all those charged with their health and well-being”.

The main message of the book is that any kind of sexual activity is ok as long as it is consensual and ‘safe’.

The author has no objection to having multiple sexual partners. As she says: “It is not bad to have a ‘high’ number of sexual partners. This number is subjective anyway, and what one person considers a ‘low’ number may seem ‘high’ to someone else. What matters is that all sexual encounters are fully consensual and as safe as possible. You may have only one sexual partner for your life, or you may have many. There is nothing wrong with this, and there should be zero shame attached. The only person you need to talk to about your number of sexual partners is a medical professional if they ask, e.g. during a STI check. Apart from that, it is no one’s business but yours, and it certainly does not define your worth”. (p. 255)

Is this the message pupils should hear? What do their parents think?

The book has no objection to polyamory. “Some people have multiple intimate partners and everyone involved has agreed to this situation. This is known as polyamory, and it has been around for long time. … Monogamy can be perfect for some people but may not suit other people and their relationships. There are many different types of non-monogamous relationships. For example, people may engage in ‘open’ relationships, in which partners can typically have sex with other people but not have romantic relationship with others. Again, this must all be talked through in detail between the two people in the relationship, with everyone’s wishes and feelings being heard and considered.” (p. 377)

The authors of the guidebook also believes that there is nothing wrong with porn as such, and it can be used in a ‘safe’ and ‘healthy’ way.

She says: “Watching porn does not have to be bad. If someone watches porn and enjoys the experience, knows that porn is not like real sex, understands that it is all acted out and unrealistic, and knows when to switch off and look for help if they see something that felt wrong or they are worried about something, then that is a great starting point for looking at porn in a safe and healthy way. Watching porn can become a problem if someone uses it a sex education tool, feels under pressure to re-enact, feels bad, ashamed or distressed in any way during or after watching it, pressures others to watch it, or feels that their experiences of body image, masturbation, orgasm, or sex is negatively affected. In a nutshell, watching porn can be bad for someone, depending on how it is affecting them, but watching porn in itself is nothing to feel ashamed about.” (p. 183)

The book also defends so-called “ethical porn”, i.e. “porn made legally, respecting the rights of performers, with good working conditions, shows both fantasy and real-world sex and celebrates sexual diversity.” (pp. 183-84).

(In a previous blog we have covered the defense of “ethical porn” by Kate Dawson, one of the contributors of this book. See here

These views are presented by people who have been teaching RSE in schools for over thirty years. They are funded by the HSE and endorsed by the President of Ireland.

Is this the kind of sex education parents want for their children? Why is the approach funded by the HSE? What does the NCCA and the Department of Education think?