Skip to main content

A New Sex Education For Ireland

Tina is a bilingual writer of unconventional fiction, a media graduate with a special focus on human sexuality and a content writer.


Ireland has come out of its sexual dark age, but comprehensive sexuality knowledge is still not part of young people’s education. The link between Catholicism and Irish sexuality is still troubling. Ireland has several chapters of dark history, and the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, the State and also the Family is still raw.

Irish people used to enjoy sex, unashamedly

We have to go back to the Great Famine in 1845 to begin to understand. Before the famine, Irish people were happily sexually active, and the population grew to 8.1 million. Ireland lost almost half its population from the famine years up to 1961. The immediate effect of the famine was an end to subletting of land and the diversification of crops away from the potato. This meant less land available to a smaller number of people. This change in land use affected Irish sexuality and the Irish family. Only the oldest son had a right to the family land, any daughters who couldn’t be married off had to be controlled sexually, and only a small minority of these women could look forward to marriage and sex.

Women’s sexuality became confined to marriage, their purpose was to reproduce, not produce, but not for the daughters of tenant farmers where the primary mechanism for reducing fertility was the curtailment of marriage. The oldest son wouldn’t marry until later in life or when his parents had died. Younger siblings either emigrated or entered the church to survive.

Victorian attitudes to sex also seeped deep into the minds, bodies and souls of the Irish and spread from Dublin to the west of Ireland, where they were adopted by tenant farmers. This cultural contradiction persisted into the late 1960s. A celibate elite allied with modern Irish nationalism had unparalleled power. They had power over education and health care service. Sexual pleasure was dirty, only a necessary evil to procreate.

Sex is political

The triad of the Catholic Church, the Irish Government and the Family determined the sexuality of the Irish nation and the Irish people suffered. In the first decade of the new Irish state, the pursuit of public morality by a small but powerful elite wrote and campaigned against prostitution, unmarried mothers, contraception, indecent literature, the cinema, women’s fashion and more and out of this literary censorship and a ban on contraceptives were achieved.

How many unwanted children have been born in the Republic of Ireland due to a lack of sexual reproduction and abortion rights? We will never know. Shame and secrecy were the common responses to pregnancy outside of marriage in Ireland up until recently. Women had to sneak off to England to either have their baby quietly adopted or to have an abortion. Infanticide was common. Contraception was illegal. There was no sex education in schools.

Between 1963 and 1980, many Irish people got their sex education by writing letters to Angela Macnamara’s column in the Sunday Press, asking for advice on intimate aspects of their sex and love lives. Some received replies in the paper and some privately by return of letter. This was at a time in Ireland when the only information on sex and intimate relationships was from the Catholic Truth Society booklets sold from the Legion of Mary trolley outside the church. This was supplemented by women’s magazines from England and what was considered erotic literature at the time, for example, Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls.

Magdalene Asylums incarcerated “fallen women” who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock

Industrial Schools incarcerated neglected, orphaned and abandoned children. Reformatories incarcerated young working-class girls and boys convicted of an offence, usually out of poverty, not criminal intent. These three institutions run by religious orders abused and terrorised the children in their care. The Ryan Report is only one of many difficult reads of brutal systemic violence, inhuman injustice and sadistic sexual abuse, but what makes it even harder to comprehend is the silent violence of betrayal of the people who knew but did nothing.

The repression of sexual drive also repressed other desires and drives too

Human sexuality is a life force, and the Catholic Church squashed Irish people’s natural drives. willingness to take risks and to innovate. Sex drives everything. Sexualisation of the world is fundamental to being human. Once we are adults, the world is sexualised. We see the world through our sexuality, and Ireland subdued this using shame and guilt.

In 1980, Dr Angela Macnamara told Ireland’s young people that sex is a gift, a most sacred act. As the authority on sex education, she also said that God made sex really lovely and having sex was an exciting and pleasant feeling, but it was only for married people. In the last century, children growing up in Ireland didn’t learn about consent, sexual minorities and porn even though sex education was officially introduced in the mid-1990s.

Sex Education in Europe

Many parents lack the necessary skills to begin the lifelong conversation around sexuality with their children, and yet some parents still oppose sex education. Irish sex education in the past consisted of don’t’ ask and don’t tell, and so Irish people don’t know how to talk about sex. Of course, the internet has changed all that, and young people know more than their parents now.

Sex education started in the 1950s in Sweden, and in the mid-1990s in Ireland, both can learn from each other, and as part of the European Union, perhaps it’s time to have common sex education. When looking at sex education from Europe, Ireland is not on its own to have strong religious influences. In Austria, sex education remains a controversial subject due to the strong religious influence in school. Many believe young people become sexually active too early, and as knowledge about contraception is widespread, sex education is unnecessary.

For students who continue to study until 18, they will have received four sessions of sex education during their whole schooling. Sex education focuses mainly on biology. Unfortunately, Muslims tend not to attend sex education. In Bulgaria, there is a divide between city and countryside people’s comfort level discussing sexuality. Sex education is not mandatory, and there is hardly any sex education in rural areas. In Cyprus, conservatism is still the norm. The church still has a lot of influence. In the Czech Republic, opponents of sex education think it’s the parent’s job to educate their children in this area.

Even Sweden has religious fanatics trying to stop what is essential protection for life. Some parents claim that sex education hastens the onset of partnered sexual activity. Other parents say it enables young people to make informed choices about sexual relationships. Parents have always been afraid of young people having too much information too soon, especially since the internet. The evidence shows that sex education is positive for young people. It reduces sexual risk-taking as many young people delay the sex debut, and they also have fewer sex partners. Sex education helps make young people aware of risks, knowledgeable about values, attitudes and how to communicate around sex with a partner.

Sex Education Bill

In Ireland, there is now broad agreement that sex education is best if approached holistically, and it must be inclusive and age and developmentally appropriate. The concern here is that Irish people tend to worry about young people having too much information too early, but research in the Nordic countries show that young people do better when they know what they will face instead of delaying the information as it can be found on the internet anyway. Open and honest discussions are important. In addition, sex education should be student-led, meaning teachers listen more and students ask more. Angry parents protesting sex education reform shows the need for sex education for parents too, not the preservation of traditional and often unhelpful values.

Scroll to Continue

The Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018 is only at stage three in Dáil Éireann. The Bill reaches the Seanad Éireann at stage six and is signed into law at stage eleven. We still have a long way to go. The pandemic has put a hold on proceedings, but it seems a small, angry minority is allowed to stop progress.

Learning about masturbation from an early age lowers teen pregnancy. Girls who learn about masturbation can self-pleasure until they are ready to share to have partnered sex. They will know they are not responsible for a boy’s orgasm, only their own, even as a couple. Boys will also learn to take responsibility for their own pleasure. Both will learn consent around sharing pleasure. Talking about porn teaches young people about the difference between real and staged sex.

Ireland also needs sex education for all new Irish people. There are many people here from cultures with no sex education, and they also all deserve the full knowledge of themselves so that they too can contribute to society in full and healthy ways.

Young people of Ireland agree, sex educators need to be confident, and they need to have sorted out their own sexuality; otherwise, how can they teach the subject. Sex education sets young people up for life.

Biology and Culture

There are biological facts, but not everyone agrees on basic facts when it comes to sex, gender and sexuality. Some see gender as only biological, and some see it as only a social construct. This is the same as the nature versus nurture dichotomy.

Biological sex dictates gender in the majority of humans. There are differences between the sexes, and biology has a greater influence than culture. Culture shapes the extent of gender expression and suppression, but socialisation doesn’t construct gender; it allows or disallows expression. If we are socially constructed to become a boy or a girl, it should be easier to change who we are without changing our bodies. When culture controls sexuality, it can be hard to become who one really is, and hiding one’s true sexuality for safety reasons might be necessary.

In teaching facts, we need to talk about essentialism and social constructivism because both play a part in who we are. We can all believe what we want to believe, but facts are facts. Evolutionary biology is science, and so is human culture. Human culture influence human genetics. We are sexual beings of both biology and the culture we grow up in. Biology and culture are foundations for life.

No one is perfectly binary, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use binary terms; we absolutely can and still include intersex, gender non-conforming and gender-atypical people. Growing into one’s body takes time. We are all experimenting with who we are.

Telling young people who they are, rushing them into making a decision about their identity when they are questioning and experimenting is not helpful. Telling girls and boys who feel different from other girls and boys that it’s natural to not be a perfect fit and to follow their own inner compass of who they are in combination with exploring options while growing up validates their being without telling them who they are.

Inclusive Sex Education

Ireland needs to unshame itself from its past, and therefore sex education should be available for all, parents, middle-aged people restarting their love and sex life with a new partner, older adults who might have lost a partner, everyone deserves to know themselves fully, we do so by sorting out our sexuality.

How we learn is as important as what we learn, and if the sex educator is not confident in both knowledge and delivery, young people turn off, and older people won’t engage. Many prefer to get their sex education online, and that goes for both young and old; we ask the internet for most things, some might ask friends first, but they will also consult the internet, so what comes up needs to be correct, needs to be inclusive.

Learning about sex is a lifelong undertaking. Sex education must be inclusive, a young person needs the basic first of all, and in later life, people might want to learn how to reawaken dormant sexual lust. Love education should also be part of sex education. None of us is taught how to love, but love is not a given; it’s a practice, it’s a decision. From love between friends, love of family to romantic love and agape love — the love of strangers or selfless love, we need to learn about the different expressions of love to navigate our relationships with people, nature and ultimately the planet.

The internet, as well as the influx of new Irish since the beginning of this century, has changed Irish culture, and this has also informed the necessary changes in Irish sex education.

There is a lack of confident and knowledgeable sex educators in Ireland. The classroom is a claustrophobic world where the teacher performs, and the students add drama. The teacher has to be in control of their body and their sexuality; they won’t have control over the students unless they have control over themselves. Some teachers are not as passionate and knowledgeable about sex education as their normal subjects and shouldn’t be forced to teach something they might not have figured out themselves.

Sexuality changes throughout life and a young teacher who is struggling with their identity while teaching young people about sexuality might not be the best. Sex educators must be confident, knowledgeable and passionate.

The most important thing when it comes to sex is to unshame Ireland. We are sexual beings, and we need to learn who we are and how to navigate the world in a sex-positive way.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Tina Brescanu

Related Articles