Explaining mysteries of sex to teenagersOctober 26, 2012 - 7:00am
Siobhán O’Higgins is a woman anyone would be glad to have as a partner. Not only is she a trained sex researcher and educator, she is also a Cordon Bleu cook – and to top it all off, she has a great sense of humour.
Siobhán, who has a Ph D in sexual education from NUIG and who is Education Co-ordinator with AIDS Help West, is a regular visitor to schools in the city, county and further afield. She teaches teenagers about sexuality in a way that is open and frank and that allows for an occasional laugh – a vital part of sex education, she says.
“I go into schools and tell them, ‘you are going to laugh and going to giggle and feel embarrassed and it’s all OK’.”
For her PhD she examined what young people wanted regarding sex education and found that they really wanted to learn about basic stuff, such as how to be good lovers.
“And if they aren’t going to learn it from their parents, they are going to learn it from the internet, where it’s all about ejaculation, penetration and sexual intercourse,” says Siobhán.
Youngsters in schools show her the stuff they have on their phones and it’s far from pretty. Her aim is to have them realise that having sexual intimacy with somebody can be about love and beauty rather than making sex an act in itself.
“It’s about having it in the context of a relationship,” she says.
Siobhán first became interested in teaching young people over 20 years ago when her children, now aged 32 and 28, were in school and “I worked out they weren’t getting enough sex education”. So she set about learning what was involved and ended up with a PhD.g
She has a primary degree in Social Administration from Nottingham University, and came to Ireland in 1979 for 10 days. She’s been here, more or less since, working first in the hospitality industry and training to be a chef. In 1980, she trained in Cordon Bleu cookery in Paris, after which she returned to Ireland and started catering here, eventually taking on the catering in Taylor’s Bar, now ironically a lap dancing club, which represents so much of what she regards as dysfunction regarding sexuality.
However, she had a strong interest in social issues and approached the Probation Services locally about doing voluntary work. They didn’t take volunteers, but recommended she try Galway Youth Federation, where she volunteered for three years and was then offered a part-time job. During this time, she did constant courses in youth and community work and eventually it was suggested to her that she embark on a Masters in Health Promotion in NUIG. She did that and was subsequently offered part-time research and teaching for the Health Promotions Research Centre.
Since 1990 she has been going into schools educating young people about sex and sexuality, and that experience formed the basis for her PhD. It was funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs – and she is so chuffed about that, because Siobhán never regarded herself as scholarship material.
Her research involved exploring what teenagers wanted from sex education. The research, and working with adolescents has helped her increase her understanding of how teaching works and how to communicate her knowledge with the students.
“I love my subject, which is sex and sex education,” says Siobhán.
She talks to sixth class pupils in primary school level and also to both junior and senior cycles in second levels. In addition, she runs workshops at NUIG and other third level institutes, with one of these being on Flirting, Dating and Relating.
In terms of primary and second level schools, it makes sense to have one person focusing on teaching sex education as part of the Social, Personal and Health Education curriculum (SPHE), although in practice, that’s not what happens, she says. Usually a teacher who specialises in another subject takes on the task.
For more, read this week's Galway City Tribune.