Sex education is just 
not that easy to teach

Sex education is just 
not that easy to teach Edna O'Brien

When people of my generation look back at the subject of sex education, I think many would conclude that it was frankly woeful. Basically, there wasn’t any ‘education’ in what was then known, euphemistically, although not untruthfully, as ‘the facts of life’. It was considered indelicate to explain too much, and much energy was expended on keeping young people ‘innocent’ for as long as possible.

I think youngsters from farming backgrounds did better than us city kids. They were aware of the most elemental facts of life: you brought the bull to the heifer and the ram to the ewe. Animal husbandry is all based on procreation – and fertility. You couldn’t be totally ignorant about the consequences of the mating season if you were raised on a farm.

For the urbanites, it was mostly a matter of nudges and winks, and for many girls, the reading of quite soppy romantic literature. This chick-lit did elevate sexual encounters to a higher sphere of aspirational relationships and dreams of happy-ever-after. But it omitted the darker side of passion and lust, which can lead to cruelty, abuse, murder and destruction.

Perhaps we should have been compelled to study the life of the Marquis de Sade, who advanced cruelty and homicide as pleasurable aspects of the sex drive – thus inventing ‘sadism’.


Of course there were plenty of moral warnings about ‘occasions of sin’. But these sometimes came with so much forbidding finger-wagging that they were discounted. Some of our generation, including yours truly, went a bit wild when the era of sexual liberation hoved into view.

In consequence, I am in favour of sex education for school students, although it must be a difficult subject to teach – imagine having to stand in front of mocking adolescents and go through the intimacies of sexuality! It’s not hard to understand why, in a survey of 5,000 students, teachers and parents, many were critical of the way sex education is taught: it’s not that easy to teach, and it must be challenging to reach an agreed standard.

Some respondents said they received little information about sexual consent, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) issues, or ‘positive’ aspects of relationships. Some were critical that lessons mentioned “abstinence” and “risks and dangers”.

All this is complex territory. Sexual consent seems straightforward – nobody should ever be forced into intimacy – but it often turns out not to be that simple to define. There is an entire history of flirtation – and popular music – about wooing and persuasion that muddies the waters. Shakespeare himself described “consent’ as coming from eye contact: “Sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages.” (Prove that in a court of law, Will!)

On LGBT issues, there is a wide spectrum of opinion. Some gay campaigners do not accept ‘transgender’ rights (the British lesbian lawyer Julie Bindel is one such). It’s a minefield, frankly.

People want more ‘holistic’ sex education – that is, considering the whole person. Positive relationships certainly should be stressed. But in examining a complicated area, and devising a revised programme for it, there’s something to be said for getting back to the biological basics of ‘the facts of life’. ‘Risks and dangers’ are certainly part of those ‘facts’, and ‘abstinence’ – once called ‘chastity’ – can also be a positive choice. That’s holistic too!


Congratulations on becoming Irish…now read these!

It’s impressive to see a gathering of 2,500 people at Killarney Convention Centre who have just become Irish citizens – coming originally from 90 different countries. May they enjoy many happy and fulfilling times being Irish – and probably, maddening and argumentative times as well, since that is also part of the package!

But here’s a thought. The French education system had a mission to ‘make Frenchmen’. That is, to inculturate citizens – be they from minority backgrounds such as the Basques, or immigrants from other lands – to the point of being French in their culture, not just in their paperwork.

How would Irishness be ‘inculturated’? I’d start with literature, and give to every new Irish citizen a collected selection of the short stories from Daniel Corkery, Padraic O Conaire, Frank O’Connor, Bryan MacMahon Mary Lavin, James Plunkett, William Trevor, Edna O’Brien [pictured] and John McGahern.

Herein are insights of the essence of Irishness.