A major review of sex education is under way in schools in the South, and amongst the proposals it is suggested teaching primary school children on sexual consent, as well as topics on safe use of the internet, the effects of social media on relationships, LGBT issues etc. One of the reasons for this shake up is that the current curriculum is 20 years old now and is believed to be out-dated.
As such the suggestions for review seem quite innocuous, but nothing can be judged until concrete proposals and applications are made. We are unaffected in the North by this review, however calls are being made for mandatory teaching on sexual consent for children by operations manager for Nexus NI Helena Bracken, and a greater focus on the issue of sexual consent has been welcomed by the NSPCC NI. It would indeed be foolish to think that the shake-up in the South will not have repercussions on how we think about sex education in our schools here in the North. On that basis it is appropriate to comment on this issue, and to take into consideration the principles that must inform any sex education in schools.
All the reports of the review in the South express the need for a sex education based on facts, i.e. one which presents students with the facts of sex and sexuality. However, notoriously absent from the proposed review is parental co-operation with regard to sex education and adopting a more pro-active approach to relationship formation in young people. By contrast in NI, Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman Rosemary Barton commented on the need for parental co-operation in sex education, and NSPCC NI commented on the need for education on relationship formation.
With regard to parental co-operation, it is parents who are best placed to make choices on how they want their children educated beyond the statutory minimum level. Given the role they play in the lives of their children, parents have to make all sorts of important choices on behalf of their children, since children at various stages have not reached the level of maturity at which such choices can be made for themselves. Sex and sexuality is a reality of life with which all human beings must come to terms and be educated about, and so it is natural to consider parental judgement on when is the right time and the appropriate manner in educating their children on these issues. This is not to say that there should be no sex education, but that such education must have the input of parents. Otherwise it is left to the judgement of people who do not know the children best and do not have the primary responsibility for the children.
The reports of the review in the South give no indication that relationship formation will be dealt with in sex education classes. Indeed, David Quinn of our sister organisation, the Iona Institute, was attacked on RTE’s prime time for advocating relationship formation before sexual encounters as maintaining a value judgement. Indeed, the suggestions for review in sex education takes for granted rampant sexual activity and simply reacts to that. But if we are to educate our children on sex and sexuality, we need to show them that this is a very real physical relationship that one shares with another, one that touches the individual very deeply and puts one into the most intimate contact with another. Accordingly, the need for caution in engaging in such activity has to be emphasised, and indeed the reservation for such activity with an individual with whom one feels that the appropriate relationship is in place. Within a Christian context the ideal situation within which sexual relations do occur is one in which two people have devoted themselves to each other in both a public and an exclusive manner, and this is marriage.
The desire to educate children on the nature of consent on these issues is itself a recognition of the importance of forming an appropriate relationship before sexual activity. Thus, if the review of sex education needs to do anything, it needs to teach children how to form stable and lasting relationships with others within which both partners feel at ease to have sexual contact with each other. Otherwise sex education is simply reactive to a reality, but does not seek to inform reality.
On the issue of sexual consent, it is suggested that all children need to be educated on this issue so as to ensure the safety of people engaging in sexual activity. Stated as such this view is fairly innocuous; who could disagree that we need to teach children about consent? Consent is a very basic principle involved in moral reasoning, and if we want our children to be morally mature we need them to be aware of consent. But when it comes to teaching sexual consent to our children, we need to note a few things.
First, in a very general way we can explain what consent is and teach children about this. But this must be appropriate to the age of the child involved. If the child is of a very young age, it may be quite inappropriate to teach him or her about sexual consent, since at such a young age it would be inappropriate to teach them about sex beyond a factual consideration of the science of the matter; though of course issues pertaining to consent independent of the sexual context could be taught here.
Second, specifically sexual consent ought only be introduced when the child is at an appropriate age to learn about sex in a more human as opposed to purely biological way. This is something that is only appropriate for a child when they have reached a level of sexual understanding whereby sex is more than just a biological fact but something that pertains to interpersonal relations. The exact age at which the latter occurs varies for individuals and usually occurs during adolescence, hence the need for co-operation with parents. Thus, a blanket application of issues pertaining to sexual consent as part of a mandatory sex education undertaken without co-operation from parents is problematic.
Third, and somewhat as an aside, one of course wants to encourage virtuous behaviour in our children by which behaviour they can relate appropriately to each other, and especially in sexual matters. Thus, we do not want children growing into men and women who believe that they can force themselves on another. However, it is unclear how teaching children the facts of sexual consent will achieve this. If one individual rapes another, it appears to be the case that he or she is aware that consent is not forthcoming but, deplorably, he or she doesn’t care. What needs to be formed in our young children is good moral character according to which it would be unthinkable to force oneself on another. This will of course involve learning about sexual consent at the appropriate age, but it will also involve something deeper – an awareness of the human good and how that can be achieved in one’s life. And the latter can only be achieved when a society forms virtuous people at home, in school, and in public life.