“Educación sexual para decidir,
anticonceptivos para no abortar
y aborto legal para no morir.”
“Sexual education so we can decide,
contraceptives so we can prevent
and legal Abortion so we don’t die.”
Fear and Loathing and Irish Sexuality
Ireland’s often dysfunctional attitude and practices in all things related to sexuality has been making national and international headlines once again. The Tuam Babies case has shaken us to the core. It has made us question the nature of Irishness, freedom in the Irish Republic, made us reflect on how we have treated and continue to treat Ireland’s most vulnerable people and how we might begin addressing Ireland’s long history of social and institutionalised misogyny.
It has raised questions of the Chruch and State’s rigid control over questions of morality and sexuality are so internalised within the Irish mindset they cannot and do not change over night. We may have demcriminalised homosexuality and contraception, provided for equal marriage rights for couples of all sexes and legalised divorce but Ireland still has a long way to go.
Tara Flynn writes that the coming to lights of the Tuam Babies has forced us to confront our projected image of what we like think Ireland is versus the religious and social hypocrisy of how we treat Irish women and children. It reminds us that Ireland’s past of shaming, censoring and punishing women is still very much with us.
The struggle of Irish women for full sexual and reproductive rights, beginning with the Repeal of the 8th Amendment, and the Church’s continued influence and opposition in this question, is perhaps the greatest indication of the the hurdles Ireland still has to overcome in addressing institutional misogyny.
But there is also another indication that not all is quite right when it comes to Ireland’s attitude towards sexuality and that is reflected in our abismal sexual education policy. We just cannot seem to get our heads round it and the church continues to voice its opposition at attempts to the introduction of a standarised curriculum.
Sex Ed Irish Style
Under the current regime schools get to decide what they teach and who will teach it according to their ‘ethos’. Meaning they do not have to stick to a defined curriculum based on facts and open discussion. The quality of your sex-ed continues to depend on where you go to school and the personal beliefs of those teaching you.
This situation is leading to continued misinformation, the shaming of anything related to sexuality and the persistence of homophobia. It also means many young people may not having a very satisfying sexual life.
In popular culture sex is something that boys want, expect or demand and girls acquiesce, give in or give up. Boys ‘score’ and girls are screwed. Boys are players girls are sluts. Boys are praised or pardoned and girls are shamed, as I am sure Slane Girl could tell you. Girls are expected to engage in sex acts but they are still not expected to show any sexual desire of their own and may express pleasure only in so far as to satisfy the male ego of being a good lover.
At worst boys can feel entitled to sex, taking it as and when they want it and girls feel they have to put out to be popular but cannot expect even to enjoy themselves. So we have cases of a 15 year old girl gang raped by five of her schoolmates. Louise O’Niell reflects the all to real persistence of rape culture in Ireland in her young adult novel Asking for It.
It would also appear that young people also are not armed even with basic information and therefore are not protecting themselves adequately either from disease or pregnancy. So much so that James Kavanagh has taken it upon himself to provide sex ed for young Irish people on Snapchat. Since he began he has been myth-busting everything from ‘HIV is the only STI you can get from penetrative sex’ to ‘only gay people get STIs.
Femifesto for a Sex Postive Education
This is my ‘femifesto’ for the sexual education I wish I’d had when I was a teenager, which I have subsequently learned for myself through experience and experimentation, through philosophy, sociology, anthropology and science, through music, art, film and television, YouTube, from reading books by ‘sex-perts’, feminist blogs, feminist erotica, and from crying and laughing with friends and lovers over adventures and mishaps.
So lets talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about respect, for ourselves, our bodies, the bodies of others, our choices and preferences and respect for the choices and preferences of others. Lets talk about gender equality, because the patriarchy is no where more present and personal then in our beds. Gender inequality can shape how we have sex, with whom and whether we can freely choose to use contraception or not.
Let’s talk about the fact that talking, the ability to communicate openly and honestly – without fear, or guilt or shame – about sex, love and relationships should really be at the centre of any Relationships and Sexual Education curriculum.
Let’s talk about the fact that vaginal penetration by a penis is not the only kind of sex we can have. I mean why not start with a lesson on the joys and benefits of masturbation: the safest, and some would say most reliable, form of sex? Lets talk about sex toys, another safe and reliable (albeit somewhat expensive) way to experience sexual pleasure. And then we can talk about fingering and mutual masturbation and oral and anal, because you definitely can’t get pregnant from them. Or sex when two vulvas are involved or sex when only penises are involved.
And lets talk about the right to say no. It doesn’t matter if you have been dancing with the same guy all night, if you kissed him, if you went home with him, if you are naked in bed with him, if he is already penetrating you. You can ask him to stop at any time and he should respect that. That is consent. It is not when you are too drunk to say yes or no, it is not after two ours of subtle coercion or persuasion after which you just give in, it is not because you have had sex with the same person before and therefore can’t then turn around and say no.
Lets talk about the fact that we won’t always experience multiple orgasms a la 50 shades. Sex can be messy, complicated and awkward. The conditions may be perfect – the candles may be lit, the ambient electronica turned down low, you’re wearing your special underwear, you’ve waited hours or days or weeks or months or years for this moment, it’s your wedding night, your anniversary, your birthday – but sex can still be unsatisfying, awkward, uncomfortable, messy or noisy, embarrassing or even regrettable. A little less Sex and the City and a little more Girls.
Let’s talk about the fallacy of gender binaries: their are far more gender identities and sexual persuasions out there then male, female and heterosexual… lets start talking about bi-sexual, homosexual, lesbian, queer, transexual, intersex, pansexual, omnisexual and asexual, to name but a few.
Lets talk about the fact that your sexuality and sex acts don’t define who you are. Being gay, or straight, or queer, is only one of multiple and overlapping identities we all juggle at the same time. Whether you ‘lost your virginity’ at 13 or 40 does not make you a slut or a frigid nor any kind of freak (virginity is a social construct anyway, right?). Our sexual norms and values, the acceptability of some sex acts and the censoring of others are all socially and culturally determined.
Lets talk about positive role models for young men and women. How about Katnis Everdeen kicking ass? Or Amanda Palmer’s frank and open celebration of her body? Laverne Cox, Panti Bliss, David Bowie and Prince’s gender-bending?
Let’s stop talking and listen. Not to the church, nor the school boards, nor the teachers, nor the parent’s associations, nor the parish priests, nor the religious lobby groups, nor the politicians, nor the media, nor the homophobes. Let’s listen to young people, to their hopes, their fears, their needs, their concerns and their experiences of life, love and sex.
While we are working towards this feminist utopia of sex positive education for all here are some excellent online resources where you can educate yourself on all you need to know from anatomy to orgasms to consent:
Sex + with Laci Green: The ultimate Youtube Sex ed queen, with hundreds of videos on everything from anatomy to illnesses to pleasure and from consent to BDSM. She is my go to girl for quick and snappy info. It may take me years, but I will make it through all her videos!
Scarleteen: A sex ed site designed for teens but really I think anyone of any age or persuasion can learn something from it. One of the best aspects of this site is that you can send in your sex related questions (completely anonymous) and the site staff will endeavour to answer them for you.
Spun Out.ie: Frank and honest articles on sex and sexuality especially aimed at young Irish people.
Our Bodies Ourselves: The ultimate gynaecological manual that mixes all things health and sexuality related with an ample dose of feminist politics and activism.