"The education on heterosexual relations was inadequate, but the provisions for LGBTQ+ students were non-existent"Eden Keily-Thurstain

Content Note: this article contains brief mention of sexual assault and rape.

I am sitting in a classroom, being shown a slideshow comprised entirely of repulsive images of STI-infected genitals.

If there’s one thing religious schools do quite like no other, it’s sex. From sexual health to sexual orientation, much was absent from my education in a religious school. On the leaderboard of sex education, schools which intertwine their religious patronage with the curriculum come crashing to the bottom.

Some may recall their sex ed lessons as consisting of discussions on vital topics such as consent and contraception. But like many others who attended a school under a religious ethos, my experience was quite the contrary.

Sitting in the assembly hall in my Christian all-girls secondary school in Ireland at sixteen years old, I remember anxiously awaiting this dreaded lesson. My expectations for sex education had been formed from television: whether it was Coach Carr defining “urges” in Mean Girls or the humiliating speech by Mike O’Donnell preaching “making love” as opposed to having casual sex in 17 Again, I had envisioned an hour of avoiding eye contact, stifled giggles, and staring at the floor.

Yet what I was met with still managed to fall below my expectations. There was no talk of sexual safety or respect. Sexual relationships, identity and orientation were all also avoided. Tainted by a conservative Christian ethos, our sexual health education somehow lacked education of the basic principles of sex.

The word ‘abstinence’ was mentioned more frequently than sex itself. We were given a graphic presentation of a multitude of different genitals which had been infected by STDs. We were then asked what the only truly effective practice was for preventing such diseases. The answer, of course, was abstinence.

“The taught culture of silence around sex carries beyond the walls of our religious schools”

Another memorable quote we took away was, “When you sleep with someone, you’re also sleeping with everyone else they’ve ever slept with.” This was always followed by another round of praise for abstinence. To this day, my blood boils thinking back on this message. Rather than receiving information on appropriate forms of contraception, we were being taught to shame anyone who has had more than one sexual partner.

Given the message of complete prevention, it was not a surprise that there was no advice on what to do if one were to experience an unexpected pregnancy. In a country where abortion had only been introduced in recent months, in the eyes of Christian educators, this was not an option.

I left the school hall shocked, somehow with less knowledge than I had going in. It felt as if the curriculum had not been adapted in decades. By feeding us biased, aged information, they were attempting to reinforce the relationship which an older, more reserved and traditional generation had had with sex. The Irish sex education curriculum should reflect the now diverse, multi-denominational demographic which it serves. This trickle-down method of educating students, based on Old Testament views, can only result in denying young people a basic knowledge of human sexuality.

Without formal education, students were forced to take matters into their own hands. Many would resort to watching pornography, while others relied on word of mouth (but if you were dependent on your friends for accurate information, it’s not much use if they themselves were learning everything from porn).

It wasn’t actually until my first week of university that I was properly taught about consent. During my fourteen years of education, consent was never referred to. If it weren’t for the workshop given by the JCR of my college during Freshers’ Week, I may have never received crucial training on the communication involved. Before this, knowledge was simply self-taught.


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But self-instruction isn’t enough. A Cosmopolitan guide or an article on Buzzfeed is not a sufficient replacement for formal education.

The education on heterosexual relations was inadequate, but the provisions for LGBTQ+ students were non-existent. Being straight was a presumption. Sexual identity and orientation has never been as widely discussed as it is today. Yet with this conservative model, I had many classmates who were left to feel frustrated and even unworthy of their identity. The system had made no attempt to assist them.

The taboo surrounding LGBTQ+ issues was not constrained to the sexual health classroom. In one instance, I was denied permission by the school to hold a Pride event. Another time, our principal stated on national media that Irish schoolgirls wearing trousers was “political correctness gone mad,” and that they were “not particularly flattering for young women.”

The taught culture of silence around sex carries beyond the walls of our religious schools. It is unsurprising that young people educated in these institutions would become instilled with the belief that all matters relating to sex and sexuality are strictly private. Recently, critics praised popular television series Normal People or its portrayal of sexual consent and responsible communication. Despite this acclamation, many older viewers were appalled by the multitude of sex scenes on national television. They were concerned by the broadcasting of the presence of sex in the lives of two students progressing to university level, citing it to be out of the ordinary. One outraged caller to RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland’s national broadcaster, stated the sex scenes were “something you would expect to see in a porno movie.”

The religious model of “sex” education promotes a culture of sexual guilt and shaming . If there was this much rage over two teenagers having consensual sex on national television, then what would a young person who experiences assault or rape do? Gaining the courage to seek help would be unimaginable given the outrage sparked over even scenes of communicative, respectful sex. Teaching generations upon generations an abstinence-only curriculum leaves students facing sexual difficulties of any kind with nobody to turn to. Primarily, if we’re not learning about consent, how can we really understand what sexual assault is?

It’s time to encourage open discussions about sex and all that comes with it. This starts with education. If there’s one thing I learnt from my religious sex education, it’s that religion and sex education should be kept far apart.