By Fr Chris Hayden
NOTE: The NCCA’s Draft Junior Cycle Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) Short Course curriculum specification, published July 2022, contains just one reference to pornography:
Under ‘Strand 3: Relationships and sexuality,’ at 3.9, it states that students should be able to ‘investigate the influence of digital media (in particular, the influence of pornography) on young people’s understanding, expectations and social norms in relation to sexual expression.’
This sound very neutral. Crucially, it sounds neutral with regard to human values. If we are going to raise concerns about how education in pornography is to be handled, we need to be clear regarding our alternative to any attempts at a value-neutral approach. This will require that we state our understanding of human sexuality, and ask others to state theirs.
We should be alert to any suggestion that RSE can be imparted in a value-free way. The NCCA itself endorses the view that RSE is not value-free. On p. 12 of its Draft Junior Cycle SPHE curriculum, there is a link to a Q and A web page which reads: [Q] ‘Does RSE point out what’s right and wrong?’ [A] ‘As with all education, RSE is not value-free. RSE deals not only with factual information, but with values, attitudes and behaviour too.’
What follows is an engagement with some aspects of two recent NCCA documents, specifically regarding education in pornography:
· Background Paper and Brief for the Redevelopment of Junior Cycle SPHE – for Consultation
· Consultation Report on the Background Paper and Brief for the Review of Junior Cycle SPHE
What follows is not an overall assessment or critique of the documents referred to. The content selected, and the queries and comments, focus in particular on the issue of pornography education.
Content: “The learning outcomes that relate directly to RSE should make explicit the topics that teachers are expected to address, such as contraception, consent, pornography, the impact of social media on self-esteem and relationships, and sexual and gender-based violence.”
Background Paper and Brief for the Redevelopment of Junior Cycle SPHE – for Consultation, p. 23
Query: In what way, very specifically, are teachers expected to address pornography? According to, and supportive of, what human values? When and where will this be spelled out, in detail, so that parents can access this content, and make their own judgments about its suitability for their children, before it is generally used in classrooms?
Content: “Among the Statements of Learning (SoL) in the Junior Cycle SPHE are that the student
‘Has an awareness of personal values and an understanding of the process of moral decision making (SoL 5)’.” Ibid., p. 32
Query: Detailed information on the ‘process of moral decision making’ is required for parents to inform themselves fully. Moral decision making requires more than a process: it requires values, understandings of the human person and of human sexuality. If there is complete neutrality regarding these things, then the most considered ‘process’ in the world is working in a vacuum. Again, the question is: ‘what values and understandings inform how the ‘process of moral decision making’ is to be taught?
Content: Under ‘Summary of the overarching ideas emerging from the consultation’ [part 2.1]:
‘Additional areas of learning that were suggested for inclusion in a redeveloped specification included consent, pornography, gender, critical media literacy and health literacy, online relationships and online safety. These came through across all the consultation formats.’
Consultation Report on the Background Paper and Brief for the Review of Junior Cycle SPHE, p. 4
Query: Once again, the crucial question focuses on content: ‘how are issues such as consent, pornography, etc. to be addressed?’ With regard to pornography, what are the human values at stake? And in order to articulate human values, there needs to be an underlying anthropology (i.e. an understanding of what it is to be a human person). If I don’t have any concept of what it is to be a human being, I cannot state what it is that leads to human flourishing (and what compromises human flourishing), and if I don’t know what human flourishing looks like, I cannot articulate values that conduce to it (or disvalues that compromise it)
Content: Under ‘Feedback from teacher consultation’ [part 2.3]:
‘Often students in 3rd year are 16 and need guidance and information about topics such as consent and pornography. We have to be brave and respond to the real world needs of our young people.’
(Teacher focus group) Ibid., p. 8
Query: Yet again: What kind of guidance, and what information? And who decides what the ‘real world needs of our young people’ are? If we answer ‘Children and young people themselves,’ then we are implying that they already know what they need to know, and that they do not, after all, need our guidance. If children are asked to consider the matter for themselves, we should note that they will, in effect, be asked (or guided, or led) to choose in a way that is in keeping with a particular outlook. As for ‘being brave,’ is the deconstruction of traditional values the only manifestation of bravery? How about the insistence that children need sound values, modelled by significant adults? Does that insistence count as bravery?
Content: Under ‘Feedback from other stakeholders’ [part 2.4], the following is quoted from the submission by Women’s Aid:
The SPHE curriculum should also address the impact of pornography on children and young people. Pornography harms both girls and boys, by influencing expectations, normalising disrespectful sexual behaviour and promoting a misogynistic, and often abusive and violent, models of sexual expectations.
Ibid., p. 11
Query: How does the NCCA propose to address the concern articulated by the National Women’s Council (a concern which, incidentally, reflects the understanding of the Catholic Church; cf., e.g., Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2354), that ‘Pornography harms both girls and boys, by influencing expectations, normalising disrespectful sexual behaviour and promoting a misogynistic, and often abusive and violent, models of sexual expectations.’ The similarity of concerns found in the Catechism and in the Women’s Aid submission, regarding the harm of pornography, makes it clear that concerns regarding pornography are not narrowly religious, or based solely on a religious ethos. They are, rather, secular concerns for the good of children.
Content: Under ‘Implications of the consultation findings’ [part 3]:
‘It was evident from the consultation that despite some concerns, the Background Paper and Brief for the review is welcomed by many.’ Ibid., p. 13
Query: Are the concerns not to be addressed or answered? What is the significance of the fact that the Paper and Brief are ‘welcomed by many’? How has the NCCA been incorporating views that do not sit with the overall direction it is taking? Are they to be ignored? What criteria does the NCCA use to assess which views are best?