I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share time with Deputy Bríd Smith at ten minutes apiece.
When we announced that we were introducing this Bill, we were inundated with school students contacting us about the backward nature of the education they had received. I will cite a few examples to give a picture of how large a problem it is this country is facing. Sarah, a student from Dublin, stated:
We were basically told we should wait until marriage to have sex. To emphasise this point, the teacher took a piece of sellotape, stuck it to her hand, ripped it off and showed us the bits of dirt now stuck to it.
She likened this piece of tape to each girl, and her sticking the tape down to her skin as each boy the girl kissed. She kept repeating this action, basically showing us that kissing many boys made you very dirty.
When the tape lost its stickiness, she proudly used this as an example of how we became emotionally unable to "stick" to one person if we keep "kissing all these different boys".
Niamh stated: "I vividly remember the teacher referring to contraception as "the C-word". She didn't like saying it in the classroom as it was against the ethos of the school." Eoin in Cork explained that a teacher briefly listed forms of contraception and noted that these did not always work. She told him and his classmates that they should abstain until they were willing to take on the responsibility of parenthood. No mention was made of homosexuality. I could go on and fill a 20-minute slot with the responses that we received. They are not isolated examples, as demonstrated by recently published research by NUI Galway on smart consent. While it made a number of findings, the headline figure was that 76% of students believed their school sex education left out a great deal of important information.
The truth is that sex education in Ireland is in the dark ages. We are behind the sex education introduced in Sweden in 1942. In 2018, we have sex education where LGBTQ+ people are often not mentioned, contraception is barely referenced, the notion of a need for positive, enthusiastic consent does not feature at all, and there is a contrast between what is taught to boys and what is taught to girls. The sexist so-called gatekeeper model is taught, with girls warned about sexual activity and boys taught nothing about consent.
The reason for this is contained in the importance given to the notion of religious ethos, which informs much of the relationship and sexuality education, RSE, given in our schools. When one reads the Irish Catholic Bishop's Conference document, Guidelines on Relationships and Sexuality Education, one sees why our education is so inadequate. It reads:
Any attempt to communicate "the facts of life" as mere facts without reference to the religious and moral dimensions of human sexuality and without reference to the pupil's need to grow in maturity would be a distortion. Scientific facts are not the whole truth about human sexuality and reproduction. To allow children to become aware of the mere facts without being helped to see them in their rich human meaning would be to deprive them of the truth.
According to the Irish Episcopal Conference's document, entitled Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education Curriculum for Ireland, a "Christian practises the virtue of chastity by cultivating decency and modesty in behaviour, dress and speech" and sexual intercourse "is an act of love within marriage".
Unfortunately, most school students receive RSE that is grossly distorted by the religious ethos of their schools. In many cases, it is provided by outside religious agencies. It is a model that is desperately failing young people and wider society. A transformation is needed.
Another NUI Galway report on sexual health and attitudes in 2017 showed that 45% of females and 41% of males reported their first sexual intercourse as having occurred at 17 years of age or earlier. It demonstrated the horrifying prevalence of sexual assault, with 12.5% of females and 2.5% of males reporting experiencing sexual assault where physical force or threats of physical force were used, and 20% of females reporting sexual contact being attempted unsuccessfully in that way. A transformation is necessary when one considers some of the backward attitudes that are still prevalent in society, particularly among men. Of males, 37% agree with the statement that, if a girl acts like a slut, she will eventually get into trouble and 35% agree with the statement that guys do not usually intend to force sex on a girl, but sometimes they get too sexually carried away.
The worldwide prevalence of sexual assault, harassment and rape was seen in the #MeToo movement, where 4.7 million people posted #MeToo comments on social media within the first 24 hours. It expanded from there. It is linked to the pornification of mainstream culture. An article by Dr. Debbie Ging explains what that means very well. According to her, it is not about the greater visibility of sex, but of the greater visibility of sex as sex in which women are degraded, the sexual double standard still prevails and consent remains disputed.
There is a backlash on the street and on social media and in movements against that sexist culture. We saw the large protests in the aftermath of the Belfast rape trial around #IBelieveHer and #WeStandWithHer. Young people are leading that movement with an awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and sexism and an understanding of consent as something that needs to be explicit, mutual and continuous.
Societal change is needed. A key part of that is the giving of objective and factual sex education. Instead of being a laggard in terms of RSE, we want to see the world's best sex education. This Bill will remove the legal barrier to achieving that. We are not just discussing a few tweaks or minimal changes. Rather, we are discussing a fundamental change and the introduction of sex education that is factual, impartial, objective and responsive to the needs of young people.
We are discussing sex education that is LGBTQ+ positive and which teaches in a positive way about all sexualities, including heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality, and one that covers all genders - male, female, gender fluid people and non-binary people. The desperate need for this can be seen in the crisis of mental health for LGBTQ young people. A GLEN survey in 2016 found that 56% of LGBT people aged 14 to 18 had self-harmed and 70% had suicidal thoughts.
We need sex education that covers methods of contraception comprehensively and educationally. Currently, there are students who are not taught anything other than abstinence and the model advocated by the Catholic Church. Sex education that covers the termination of pregnancy in an objective manner is needed due to the experience teenagers have where outside anti-abortion groups are brought into schools to give their views. Sex education that teaches about sexual health is needed. STIs in Ireland are rising among young people at an alarming rate; there was an 11% rise in STIs among 15 to 25 year olds between 2016 and 2017. We need young people to be taught about regular testing for STIs and for them to learn that HIV is not only preventable but also treatable. Crucially, we need a sex education that has consent at its very core - consent that has to be explicit, mutual and continuous. It should teach young people that relationships and sexual activity should make them feel good and that pleasure is a measure of consent.
I want to send a very clear message to the Government that this Bill being left languishing on Committee Stage will not be accepted. It is being supported by a wide range of organisations, many of which are here. They and the school students who have pushed it will not accept it simply not going anywhere. They will not accept the Government proposing minimal changes to our current RSE programme. The Bill points to a key issue in Irish society, that is the contrast between the influence of the Catholic Church over our schools, healthcare and society and the attitudes of young people and their aspiration for objective, factual sex education and a modern society. There is no problem with the Catholic Church or other churches propagating whatever beliefs they have about sex but there is a problem with those beliefs being imposed on young people in schools. We need a separation of church and State. It is only a year ago the Government wanted to hand over the national maternity hospital to a religious order. It was forced back by a movement of protest. We are now having a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment which puts the view of one particular religious belief into the Constitution meaning those who are pregnant are restricted in their choices. There is a long, dark history in this country of religious-based laws on contraception, censorship, women's position in workplaces and homes and on same sex relationships. Those laws have been fought against and there have been important victories after campaigns and struggles. All of that points to the need for the separation of church and State.
This is the third Bill we have had on the issue of school ethos. The issue is not going to go away. People will force it and demand that the Bill becomes law and that the movement will develop and grow. There is nothing the Government will be able to do to stop it until we have a full separation of church and State and a secular society.