I wrote this during a time where there was much debate on the Age of Consent in Ireland. In this letter published in the Irish Times I was hoping to encourage people to really think about the pressure our young people experience, and to give them a voice.
Madam, – I am a counselling psychologist and psychotherapist working in Cork city and county. I specialise in work with teenagers. I designed and co-facilitate a drugs prevention and personal development programme in various secondary schools in the city and county. Part of this concerns relationship and sex education. My colleague and I are therefore privy to much of what goes on in the teenage world and we have the privilege of witnessing and sharing the joys, struggles, and sometimes horrors faced by today’s adolescents.
With regard to the current debate on the age of consent I thought your readers may be interested in what a sample of our young people think.
Every year we ask their opinion on such matters and for the past five years, according to our records, the vast majority of 15- to 17-year-olds believe the age of consent should be 17 or older. Generally they feel that until this age they are not in a position to make mature decisions about intimacy and sexual relationships. Furthermore, they feel ill- equipped, due to the lack of information readily available to them either at home or in schools.
Then there is the issue of boundaries. While teenagers complain about rules and limits, they are at some level aware of the advantages of having limits set for them. For example, many teenagers may say they are not allowed out when in fact they may not want to go out. Similarly, if there is a “rule” prohibiting a certain behaviour, this can serve as a safety net, an “escape hatch” for the nervous or unwilling teenager. The sentence “I’m not allowed” can bring much relief.
As adults it is our job to set boundaries for teenagers with their health and safety in mind. It is their job to push against these boundaries. This is how we teach healthy behaviour and influence healthy decision-making. It is important that we do not bend these rules.
I have heard the argument that teenagers will have sex regardless of the age of consent. This may well be true. But it is still our responsibility to create a frame of reference that they can use in making their decisions.
With the age of consent set at 16 for girls, many feel they should be having sex. Many older men tell them it’s OK to have sex because that’s the law. This makes 16-year-old girls particularly vulnerable to older, predatory men. In our work we are already seeing an increased number of older men pursuing relationships with teenage girls. Do we really want to make that even easier? Are we being good role models by doing so?
And there is another issue: the popular media – magazines, TV, etc – which are bombarding young people with sexual imagery. Our children are becoming sexualised at an alarming rate. How many parents reading this have children who own and/or wear Playboy paraphernalia? Are we even aware of how this is normalising pornography for children?
I believe that lowering the age of consent gives the dangerous and untrue message that we now believe 16-year-olds are mature enough to handle sex and all that goes with it. To do this is buying into popular culture on a grand and dangerously irresponsible scale.
How wise our children are to feel that 16 is too young. They want to protect themselves, their friends and their siblings.
But hang on – isn’t that our job?