Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger is on the frontline fight for many issues but especially women’s rights and secular education. Last week she tabled the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill which wants to ensure that children receive factual, secular sex education. Caitriona Devery spoke to her about the issues at hand.
Has the Belfast trial radically altered the landscape when it comes to sex and how we talk about it?
The trial has made more people aware of issues around consent. There has been a growing mood among people, women in particular, of not tolerating rape and sexual harassment. This is seen in movements such as #metoo. Due to the pressure of the protests last week the government very quickly announced a review of how victims will be treated in court. This is a review, it’s not actual change, so we need to keep up the pressure on this.
Do you think issues like objectification of women, misogyny, rape etc. are deteriorating or are the problems just more visible?
It is both. There has been a change in how misogyny and sexism presents itself. The whole area of online abuse for example is a new area compared to a few years ago. It’s not unusual for young women constituents to tell me about so called “revenge porn” and abuse of images of them. This is a worrying new trend, but it’s also not new. Sexism and disrespect of women has existed before the internet.
What are the threats to positive sexual attitudes and practices, especially for younger people?
Young people are the ones driving the need to reform sex education so that RSE covers issues like healthy sexual relationships, intimate partner abuse, consent and also pressures young people feel with the internet. I have strong confidence in young people countering many of the more modern developments. In saying this any growth in toxic masculinity and abusive porn is a challenge to a healthy approach to sex and relationships. There is a major problem in society with violence in relationships.
What needs to change in our sex education in schools?
We need to have a completely different approach to sex education in schools. We need to have Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) classes discussing consent, what it is, how to positively consent or not consent and how to respect others. We need RSE to be freed from the religious ethos of many schools so that young people do learn about LGBTQ+ relationships, the great diversity there is in sexuality and genders, and about basic things like contraception and STIs in a factual and objective manner.
We need discussions in RSE class about healthy relationships, about intimate partner abuse and violence. We need the RSE classes not to shame young people and cause them fear, instead we need people to have a positive view of themselves and others and have a positive knowledgeable interaction with others in relationships.
What’s stopping that?
The position of religious ethos in schools is a major barrier to delivering the sex education Irish society needs. The Minister recently announced a review of RSE. However that review could be dead in the water if there is not a change to the position of school ethos in the curriculum. This is why we in Solidarity put forward the the Sex Education Bill.
I’ve been emailed over the past weeks by school students telling me about how inadequate RSE was in their schools. A common trend is the barrier of ethos. Teachers are restricted in what they can say to students, I have heard examples of where teachers do not answer questions of students due to ethos of the schools.
We need a separation of church and state, and this practically means that in schools ethos is removed from how the curriculum is set.
Is there enough political will in the government, mainstream parties and wider society to confront this issue? Can education do much without this broad support for change?
There is not a strong will in the political establishment to challenge the position of ethos. Over the past years Solidarity have been bringing forward different Bills on ethos in schools. Each time it is opposed, to varying degrees, by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour.
They realise there is a need to change things as society does not tolerate the conservative restrictions on schools and there is a growing number of people with no religion or from a minority faith. But they also want to preserve a position for the church. Our political establishment is very close to them, only a year ago Simon Harris was rubber stamping handing over the National Maternity Hospital to an order of nuns.
Where change will happen is from working class people, young people and those working in education in particular. We have seen a review announced of the RSE curriculum within hours of the #WeStandWithHer protests. The Minister would love to leave it at that, but there is now a realisation that we need to separate church and state if we are to have factual and objective sex education.
We have a Bill in the Dáil, but it is outside the Dáil where we can see the motor for change. For example, a large Yes vote on 25 May can put enormous pressure on the political establishment to go where they do not want to go in sex education and church state relations in schools.
Patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes can seem so deeply ingrained, especially online, what keeps you hopeful?
Without a doubt it’s the very positive attitude of young people. Within hours of the verdict in Belfast there were thousands on the streets around Ireland, north and south. Young people and women were appalled by the sexist attitudes on display in the WhatsApp messages. The demand for a change in sex education came from young people who were constantly raising the need for change with me when Solidarity and ROSA were out campaigning for a Yes vote.
There are great challenges and different challenges when taking on patriarchal and misogynistic views today. As you mention online abuse is a new dimension, but protest marches and a global women’s movement is also a new dimension.