I have lived in Ireland since I was a very young child. I am in my mid twenties now. It took me until the last year to fully accept or even admit to myself I am bisexual because of the way sexual/reproductive education is handled. It is true of Ireland as it is with many other regions that sexual education through abstinence preaching doesn’t work. My story begins at the age of fourteen. When I was a young teenager the only sexual education I got was to not have sex, a brief and biological explanation on how the penis works and due to the imposing presence of the Catholic church in the schooling system in Ireland, was not told about homosexual relationships at all and that abstinence until marriage was the way every sin-less and good person did it. Due to the lack of education and indirect enforcing of homophobia (by being blocked by the Catholic Church from educating us on Homosexual sexual health and relationships), my first sexual experience was completely unsafe, emotionally abusive and led to more than a decade of denial about my own sexual orientation.
As it was a topic that was not allowed to be discussed by school policy and due to the small town mindset of where I went to school, my relationship with another boy was something that we kept secret for the duration and even until well after it ended and I had finished my 6 years of second level education. At that time, having that be public knowledge to a staff member would mean that it would have to be referred to the principal, the Board of management and ultimately the Arch-bishop of the area. That would ultimately result in having to end a relationship or face ‘being asked to leave’ the school, as direct expulsion would result in a lawsuit for obvious reasons. A 14/15 year old in that situation is completely fearful of that, the embarassment caused by peers finding out, having to explain everything to your parents or guardians, being treated differently just because of a teenager doing what they do anyway. The lack of comprehensive sexual education meant that I was completely unknowledgable about the potential health risks, I was forced into a closet due to surrounding stigma and ultimately lied to myself for years after that I was ‘just experimenting and that I was defintely straight’ even though the relationship with another boy I had lasted over a year and between heterosexual relationships I had in that time. I was forced into a corner where it wasn’t even safe to ask for advice. On reflection, we both made dumb mistakes.
The other half of this encounter was also emotionally abusive. He would threaten to ‘kill me’ if I told anyone about what was happening, and was the reason I was unable to even seek advice from peers about the situation for fear of retribution. At the time, I know he cared more about his reputation with peers and was also fearful of the backlash that would come from things being public. It took me until the last year to really admit to myself I am bisexual, but even at that I have never dated another man in part because of the lasting impression left on me by that event in my youth. Growing up into my twenties and moving to a University town by the age of nineteen helped me open myself up and educate myself more on identity and sexual health. It took a lot of effort and emotional strain to feel comfortable enough to talk about with other people.
This all could have been – SHOULD have been – easier. The teaching of abstinence as a form of sexual education didn’t prepare me, a young bisexual male, for what I was up to. It created an environment of hostility that I had to navigate and hide in to protect myself from multiple forms of harm. The silly part of it is that all heterosexual peers were blatantly engaging in sexual relationships and the use of a condom (if it was actually used properly, as the abstinence education and Catholic churches policy banned us from being taught on how to use a contraceptive entirely) was to avoid pregnancy, no one even was considering the risks of STI’s.
What I learned from the experience was that abstinence doesn’t really deter teenagers from doing what they do best; the opposite of what they ar told. They have and will continue to do what they want and should continue to explore themselves and learn about themselves, but it should be done safely. Providing the education to know better than I did. Teach them how to be safe and understand the real consequences and risks of unprotected sex while also educating them on the existence and normality of other sexual orientations, rather than Heterosexuality as a catch all default. Make it less of a toxic environment for young people and hopefully there will be less stories like mine. Hopefully, more people will actually be comfortable in their own skin, less shamed for feeling things they have no explanation for.
Teach sexual health, not fear.