By Tara Trevaskis Hoskin
The Netflix original show Sex Education is back this month with a second season and it has proven popular once again. The show follows the lives of sex therapist Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) and her teenage son Otis (Asa Butterfield). There are many developments in the plot of season 2 but the general premise remains the same, as Otis and Maeve (Emma Mackey) re-open their own sex clinic in their school. However their business is put into jeopardy when Jean is enlisted by the school to improve the sex education curriculum. It’s undeniable that this is a very funny and charming TV show, however, it is also educational in a way that we have not seen before. The show does not just focus on contraception and heterosexual sex like much of our education did in the Irish school system, it explores topics about body image, consent, sexuality, pleasure and so much more. Sex education has been an extremely controversial topic, especially in Irish society, in the recent past, but is there still a taboo in Ireland around sexual health and sex education? Has this teenage comedy been breaking stigmas more so than the Irish education system?
Last year, a report was published by the Oireachtas Education Committee, stating that Relationship and Sexuality Education in Ireland was outdated and needed an overhaul. There is legislation in place that ensures all schools must provide some sort of sex education to their students, however, this education may be dictated by the ethos of the school. With the majority of schools across Ireland still having Catholic patronage, many schools have a Catholic ethos. With the Catholic belief that sex should be saved for marriage and homosexuality is a sin, it is safe to say that not all Irish students have had a comprehensive sex education curriculum. Due to this lack of inclusive sex education, people are less comfortable with openly discussing their sexuality and indeed sexual health.
Without the tools to be open, people are closed off and sex becomes a taboo topic. If we are not equipped with these tools from a young age, it becomes harder to develop them once we get to university. Without a more comprehensive sex education programme in Irish secondary schools, there will still be a stigma around discussing our sexuality and sexual health. Shows like Sex Education are combating this stigma by giving young people the necessary tools for having healthy and open conversations.
Research from Cenuswide and Medicine Direct found that 47% of Irish people have never had an STI check despite being sexually active. There is a massive stigma around STI’s and as a result people often feel a huge amount of shame around this topic. Sex Education touches on this issue in the first episode of season 2 when the school experiences a chlamydia outbreak. Towards the end of the episode, the people who contracted it are reminded that an illness is not something shameful and the show highlights the importance of open discourse with our sexual partners. This is not to say that this episode alone has ended the taboo around contracting an STI or even around regular STI screenings, however, it has opened a small conversation or normalized sexual health to some degree.
There is still a long way to go in Ireland around lessening the shame with sexual health, but with the rise in popularity of Sex Education, it is clear that there is more open discourse to come.
As I mentioned before, much of the curriculum in Irish secondary schools focuses on heterosexual relationships, often not even acknowledging that there is more than one sexuality. This creates a taboo around other sexualities, and if they are never discussed there is room for lots of misinformation and misconceptions about them. Sex Education has gay, pansexual, lesbian, bisexual and asexual characters. This diversity is really important, especially for young people, who often don’t receive any education about their sexualities. By having this representation, the taboo and lack of information around sexuality is broken down and it is important that this representation is also reflected in our education system.
There is still a lot of taboo and shame around sexuality and sexual health in young people in Ireland due to a lack of education, only heightening the need for shows like Sex Education that slowly break this stigma down.