Revelations: SexEd and the Catholic Church / Megan Corbett
I learnt a lot of lessons whilst growing up in Catholic schools that I didn't realise other people never had. Parables such as ‘The Good Samaritan’ are second nature to me, and yet when I went to university, somebody told me they had no idea that the Samaritans charity derived its name from the Biblical story — much to my amazement. Though religion is not a part of my life nowadays, I truly believe that growing up in these schools gave me a good moral grounding, as well as educating me (in a small way) about other religions, and highlighting many ethical issues.
The problem is that all of these ethical issues came from the viewpoint of teachers within the Catholic school. Not every teacher at my secondary school was Catholic — some of them weren’t even religious. Regardless, the RE classroom was where we discussed the big issues: abortion, euthanasia, pacifism, contraception.
It's very important to highlight the small difference in delivery, however, between 'Contraception' as a debating topic and SexEd or SRE (Sex and Relationship Education). Almost the entirety of what I was taught in those lessons was ‘how not to get pregnant’. I hate to be the Catholic stereotype, but it’s true; I was taught about male condoms, female condoms, the coil, the combined oral contraceptive pill, the rhythm method (which seemed to be a favourite despite its 20-25% failure rate), the contraceptive patch...and that’s it. Except, of course, for the skipped over biology in which we were taught minimally about menstruation and its side effects. In fact, I can’t even remember seeing a labelled diagram of genitalia (male or female) during my entire time at school.
I knew at the time that this was not enough, but going to university really revealed the vast gap in my knowledge. The most common experience that my university friends told me about was putting a condom on a banana/cucumber/dildo. I was genuinely shocked to hear about how common a thing this was: having only ever seen a picture of a condom on the whiteboard, the idea of being handed one in school horrified me. I didn’t do this until I voluntarily attended a 'Sexpression' workshop in my first year of university.
Contraception, menstruation, pregnancy, and STIs are the subjects that come up most often when I ask about the kinds of things other young people were taught in SRE. It was even more shocking to hear that sexuality, consent and peer-pressure were topics that were discussed.
It almost moved me to tears to hear that schools not only talked about homosexuality, but also bisexuality. Making sexualities other than heterosexual visible and acceptable is incredibly important, yet nearly all of the teaching I experienced was heteronormative. Discussion of other sexualities only ever occurred if someone in the class raised the topic, never from the teacher or the course material. Of course, there’s a long way to go on this front even in non-religious schools, but to hear that someone learned about bisexuality in an educational setting, rather than through the internet like many of us have to, was incredible.
All of this being said, there are still a lot of gaps that need to be filled, policy for sexual education must be updated to fit with the ever-changing world we live in.
Surprisingly, not many of my friends remember being directly taught about consent; the infamous ‘consent is like a cup of tea’ video is about all people remember with any clarity, but it shouldn’t take a YouTube video to tell me that my body is my own and that I can change my mind and withdraw consent at any time.
Following this, a discussion of healthy relationships didn’t seem to be mentioned once, which I found worrying. Secondary school is usually the place people start to have relationships, sexual or not. People experience a lot of change throughout their teenage years; bodies, minds, beliefs, opinions, and friendships are in a constant state of flux, making it easy for young people to experience self-doubt. In this setting, it would be easy for unhealthy relationships to flourish, and yet, by not discussing it, we leave teenagers without the tools to identify warning signs and address them. If it is legal to have sex at 16, why should we not include relationships alongside the discussion of safe sex?
None of these topics are necessarily easy to talk about, and often parents don’t want their children to be taught certain things in the classroom. This is easily understood, but when it comes to your child’s health and wellbeing - which is what is ultimately affected by matters covered in SRE - you need to be open and willing to listen. The alternative to young people learning about these things in a safe, open environment, is the internet. And whilst the internet can hold many answers, it is also a dangerous place for impressionable children, filled with misinformation.
We need to widen the school curriculum, and I don’t think religious schools should be exempt from this. I would never tell someone to teach against their beliefs, but subjects such as consent, the role of social media, and the lack of realism in porn are all things that can be confronted without bringing religion into the fold. The prominence of these issues in our society means many students are likely to have insecurities and questions, and by discussing them within a school, they are given a safe place to learn.
Beginning this discussion about healthy relationships and consent at such a young age will mean that these concepts can be understood by young children without having to introduce the concept of sex - which is the part that I think a lot of parents are worried about. That’s what spiral education means though: starting with the basic concepts so you introduce the more complicated ideas (i.e. consent being applied in a sexual context) when the children are older, more mature, and at the right stage of life.
School taught me a lot of things, but the education system is, as ever, failing to keep up with real life. A lot of what I know now comes from YouTube, online, or the trial and error of real life. While these are all potentially great ways to learn, they wouldn’t be necessary if we stopped failing young people and gave them a proper education when it comes to sex, sexuality, safety, and relationships. As for religious schools, they have their advantages, but a sense of impartiality is necessary on important subjects such as this. SRE can be taught without religious beliefs skewing it - and if schools feel they can’t be impartial, then they should at least provide sources for pupils who do wish to learn about these topics. At the end of the day, it’s about the physical and mental wellbeing of young people, something that should be at the core of our educational system.
Article by Megan Corbett
Edited by Hannah Crosbie
Image by @cupmallows