Let’s teach, rather than blame, our teenagers.

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This is my response to figures published today by the Rape Crisis Network. I refer in particular to the disturbing statistic that nearly 40% of sexual assaults of minors in Ireland are committed by under-18s. The Rape Crisis Network’s website is here if you want to view this and other reports.

I am cautioning against our blaming teenagers exclusively, and encouraging adults to take responsibility for our part.

 

“A Rape Crisis Network survey published today says that almost 40% of sexual violence against children perpetrated by under-18s”.

So reads todays headline in the Irish Times. Worrying isn’t it? So what’s going on?

A radio report proclaimed “Over a third of sexual assaults on children are carried out by children”. Technically yes, that’s true. Let’s remember though that ‘children’ means under 18s. There are a lot of 14 – 18 year old boys and girls out there who would not be regarded by their victims as ‘children’. So let’s avoid the temptation to dismiss the horror of what is happening here, to both genders.

The reality is that boys and girls are being sexually assaulted in Ireland. It is probably happening as I type, as you read this. In an interview this morning a spokesperson from the Rape Crisis Network cited the availability of pornography as a probable influence on the behavior of sexual assailants. She is by no means a lone voice in the wilderness. More and more people are beginning to see that we are raising a generation of children on a stable, unbalanced diet of porn. It’s not excusable to view this as harmless fun any more. It’s dangerous.

I was leafing through old articles I had written and came across an interview I did in 2001 about the early sexualization of children. It’s a long time ago. (I’ve attached a rather illegible photo of it here).

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Britney was busy spanking her leather clad bum wanting to be a slave. Charming. I remember feeling like a lone voice then. Even though I’m sure I wasn’t. Twitter and access to multiple blogs brings with it a welcomed sense of solidarity. Many people are very troubled by what is going on.

Things have deteriorated since 2001 haven’t they? Two words : Miley and Cyrus.

Here is what’s going on in my world: I work with a lot of teenagers. I do this in private practice as a psychotherapist, and I work in a school teaching sex education, as a facilitator, not a staff teacher. (It’s a progressive private school,  this is not the norm in the Irish public system. There, the job of sex ed often falls to a reluctant teacher who would rather pull his/her teeth out with a rusty set of pliers).This means I am privileged to hear a lot of things that other people don’t hear. Probably don’t want to hear.

We are super great at denial in this country.

These teenagers, these lovely cute young enthusiastic energetic people that I just love working with, are being bombarded daily with images of women. These women are in various stages of undress, doing various things that are designed to titillate, having things done to them, things that are designed be sold to and to excite the mature sexual human being. But these teenagers are not mature sexual human beings.

So what we are teaching them is that this is what women are for, this is what men do, and that this is what sex is. We are teaching both genders, not just boys. Many young girls genuinely believe that their value is in how they look and how much pleasure they ‘give’. Some young boys believe that their value is measured in how attractive their girlfriend is and what they “get out of her” sexually.

We’re not sitting them down and telling them this, but then we don’t sit down and teach them how to speak English either. They just absorb it, unaware, as we are unaware that we are teaching.

I recall a boy bringing me some artwork he had done. It was very skilled – a sketch of a young woman with a black eye. He got the image in a porn magazine. He thought it was “cool”.

Take a moment to think about that.

Here’s the other thing that’s happening (and this will be received perhaps less well by some readers). Some of the parents of these teenagers are complicit, albeit unconsciously. I have seen Facebook posts, twitter posts, heard jokes told by adults in front of these children that normalize abnormal behavior and even turn it into a source of humor. Adults joke about blow jobs, pepper sentences with terms like slapper, whore, slut. In front of their kids. They get drunk in front of their kids, some even buy drink for their kids and then wonder why their children get drunk. They snigger at puns in a manner that one would expect from adolescents, and use sexist and sexual remarks. Both men and women. Not all, but definitely some, which is too many. I know this is true, and you know it too.

We are all new to social media and even the adults are not using it responsibly – how can we expect our children to?

It is the adults who make pornography, sell it, consume it, share it, and then get all surprised that their kids are exposed to it. It is the adults who are saying “sure it’s only harmless fun and if you don’t like it, don’t look”. I also hear “Ah sure they know its not real”. Really? How exactly do they know? Some of them don’t actually. They really don’t. These are the vulnerable ones, the ones who get filmed engaging in sexual activity and finding themselves on YouTube, the ones who show up in the figures published today. (And let’s not forget the unreported ones).

So these are arguments we need to collectively drop. They are not valid. It is not that simple. Until we cop on to that fact, we are going to see things getting a whole lot worse.

One sentence that really caught my attention this morning was that the average sexual abuser of the teenaged girl is now the guy in her class, or her boyfriend. The guy who says “if you don’t have sex me, I’ll tell everyone you did it anyway”. This matches completely with my professional experience. Technically this is an under-18 ‘child’ making a threat. The girls who hears it doesn’t see a child though, she sees a young man, possibly a physically strong and powerful one, and she sees her reputation being on the verge or ruination. She correctly perceives danger. She does not have the maturity to see options other than to do what he says, because she too is being raised in the context of porn and submissiveness. She is frightened. He has not being taught about consent, about empathy, about how psychologically scarring this is going to be. Probably for both of them.

This is a familiar scenario to me in my work. This is becoming normal. It’s real. Does that scare you? Are you making the assumption that this could not happen to your child?

So this piece I am writing this evening is an appeal to parents to talk to your boys about consent and what it means. If you don’t know how to, seek advice. Talk to them about porn and the difference between porn and real sex and relationships. Talk to you daughters too, teach them that boys’ behavior and pleasure is not their responsibility. We are the grown ups and we have to teach them this stuff. Now.

It’s not a leaving cert subject. It’s not the school’s job, or the HSE’s, or the government’s. This is not the fault of ‘the youth of today’. This is a very challenging and difficult part of parenting, I appreciate that. But the fact remains that our children are our responsibility. Soon, they will have their own children. Let’s equip them to be respectful healthy adults and maybe the next generation will be safer.

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