Sunday 28 May 2017

Porn, hook-ups and the reality of sex for Generation Z

While it's a generation that is practising safer sex than in the past, it is one in which relationships appear to be more disposable than ever before. John Meagher reports in the third instalment of our four-part series

Innocence corrupted: Boys as young as 11 are watching porn. Photo posed
Innocence corrupted: Boys as young as 11 are watching porn. Photo posed
Tinder

Michael (17) saw his first porn video at 12. He was at his school friend's house and his mate showed him the short film on his father's iPad.

"It had been on a safe-search mode and his parents thought he wouldn't know that," Michael says, "but my friend went into settings and had changed it in seconds. He'd done it several times before and knew which websites to go to. As soon as we'd watched a few, he made sure to erase the history for the day. His dad never found out."

Michael has lost count of the times he has watched pornography in the intervening years. "It's normal," he says. "Everybody in my class watches it, or says they watch it. I don't really see what the problem is."

But some think such early exposure to hard-core sex is a problem. The ISPCC has noted that it now frequently receives calls from adolescents - and from children as young as six - who are disturbed by the pornographic images they have seen online.

Psychologist Trish Murphy, who specialises in sex and intimacy issues, says the pornography that's being consumed by Generation Z is a cause for real concern.

"It can cause an abundance of issues, from performance anxiety to fears that they don't look good enough," she says. "It offers an unrealistic ideal that they may take into their own sex lives and, of course, it raises all sorts of ideas about consent because it's often about the male forcing the female to have sex.

"I run sexual consent courses now and I think there's a need for it because pornography gives such a warped look at sex.

"Young people know that porn is fake but if they're exposed to it too much, there is a worry that they can have problems with intimacy."

Murphy points to international studies that show the biggest consumers of pornography around the world are 12- to 17-year-olds. "They're mainly boys," she says, "but girls are looking at it too. It's a new phenomenon, and really came on stream when the internet became mobile. Maybe 10 or so years ago."

Time was when the closest a child got to pornography was via a tattered magazine passed around the classroom, but now, with most children in possession of their own smartphone, everything has changed. Highly explicit photos and videos are just a few finger-swipes away.

For psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, a specialist in child-parent relationships, it is not uncommon for children of primary school age to become exposed to pornography. "You hear of children aged 10, or younger, seeing it for the first time, and we probably won't be able to tell for another decade or so just what kind of impact that will have on their lives."

Fortune says no generation has had as much exposure to pornography at such a young age as Generation Z. "I don't want to come across as a prude, but it can damage their idea of what sex is all about. And even if it doesn't have a negative impact as they get older, there are legitimate worries about their childhood innocence being corrupted."

Man keeping intouch with his friends and family over internet.
Man keeping intouch with his friends and family over internet.

Just ask those teachers who have 'walked in' on pupils viewing pornography on their phones. "I've been teaching for about 15 years and it's only in the past few years that's it's become an issue," says a Dublin-based primary schoolteacher. "Before Christmas I had to confiscate an iPad that they'd been using to look at explicit content. These are 11 and 12-year-old boys and they were looking at videos that should never be seen by anyone under 18."

But while it's true that pornography is a factor in many teenage lives, it's also the case that this generation has received better sex education than any other. Thanks to the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme in schools, there's an open conversation now about sexual matters that was denied those who went before.

"It's not like it was in my parents' day when it was something that was rarely brought up in schools," says Rachel (17). "My mother was saying recently that it's no surprise that the number of teenage pregnancies is down compared to when she was my age."

The decline in the rate of teenage mothers has been little short of astonishing. According to a 2015 HSE report, there has been a 60pc reduction in teen pregnancies since 2001. The rate of 15 to 19-year-olds becoming pregnant fell from 20 per 1,000 to 9.3 per 1,000 in that 15-year period. And, crisis pregnancy experts say, there's little reason to assume the rate won't decline further.

There's also evidence that there's far less risky sexual behaviour among teens than was occurring even a generation ago.

The use of condoms is high among late teens and twentysomethings and per-capita alcohol consumption - a factor linked to unprotected sex - is down on figures recorded at the turn of the millennium. However, sexual health professionals point to high levels of STIs and say that the number of HIV cases diagnosed here is at an all-time high - 498 in 2015, up from 377 in 2014.

There is good news for gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers. All were born after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993 and they have seen an electorate embrace marriage equality.

Tinder
Tinder

"I'm growing up in a country where you don't have to hide your sexuality any more," says Sean (18). "I felt comfortable coming out to my classmates in Junior Cert year. It's no big deal.

"But I know I'm lucky to be the age I am. I was talking to an older cousin about this last year and he said when he was at school, he kept getting called 'faggot' and 'queer' and that was before he told anyone."

And yet, there's evidence that LGBT teenagers are still experiencing widespread bullying in Irish schools. A 2016 survey conducted by Trinity College Dublin, in conjunction with gay rights groups BeLonGTo and Glen, found that 56pc of the 14 to 18-year-olds in the study had self-harmed, while 70pc said they had given serious thought to ending their own lives.

Furthermore, only one in five felt they belonged completely in their school, while less than half felt they have received positive affirmation of their sexual identity.

Psychologist Allison Keating believes that early sexualisation is causing teenagers to bypass the crucial 'awkward phase' that was a harbinger of adulthood, where they grappled with adult concepts without being actually confronted with them. She says this is most common in the behaviour of girls.

"I see these outwardly sophisticated young women, who've contoured [their make-up] to perfection, they've looked at all those YouTube tutorials, and they seem ready to take on the world. They're under pressure to grow up quickly, there seems to be an expectation to look both sexy and serious."

When she encounters such people in the course of her work, or outside of that, she keeps asking the same question. "Where are all those shy, awkward teenagers? A lot of teens don't seem to go through that awkward phase at all - one moment they're children, the next they're adults, or certainly acting like an adult. It's a pseudo-adulthood.

It's a sentiment echoed by Joanna Fortune. "Never before have children been reaching sexual maturity as young as this generation," she says, "and there can be complexity to relationships that might make no sense to older generations - you can be 'seeing' someone, but it doesn't have to be 'exclusive'. There seems to be a lot of casual hook-ups."

Keating says that in some ways, teenagers are much more open to talking about sex than previous generations, but in other ways they're not open at all. "Maybe it's something to do with the huge amounts of time they spend online and they're not as comfortable talking face to face."

One of the defining aspects of Generation Z, compared to the previous generation - the Millennials, is their choice of social medial tools. While Millennials came of age on Facebook, Gen Z are hooked on Snapchat.

Snapchat is perhaps attractive in that it offers users the possibility of being able to post risqué or contentious content, while being safe in the knowledge that it will 'disappear' in seconds. Other social media platforms are seen to leave a permanent footprint.

There has been extensive reporting of 'sexting' or teens using Snapchat to send naked images of themselves, or photos of their genitals, to others. Last year's ISPCC report highlights the fact children as young as primary school age are sending such photos. Few are found to have an awareness of the potential consequences of such an act.

While the push is on to educate teenagers, children and parents about the dangers of posting online, most of the advice in the area is aimed at helping children and teens cope with the reality of online life, rather than curtailing its use. That ship has sailed.

There are other pressures, too. Tinder - the dating tool beloved of the Millennials - has brought far-reaching ramifications for Generation Z. Although it's influence is on the wane, Murphy says Tinder has popularised the belief that relationships are disposable, "that [they] aren't something to be worked on, but dumped at the merest problem".

Although not everyone would agree that permanency is the holy grail in relationships, Allison Keating says there is a problem in the belief perpetrated by Tinder that "there's unlimited choice out there".

Too much choice, she says, makes us anxious. "A world of choice can make us unhappy - and that's the case in our interpersonal and romantic relationships too."

Anxiety is a word often linked to under-18s today. The exponential rise in self-harming amongst children and teens which was detailed last week in Generation Z is one manifestation of that.

And what easier topic to become anxious about, than sex?

"Kids can really get worked up about not being in a relationship or not having the kind of relationship they want," says Trish Murphy. "Maybe they're overthinking problems - or perceived problems - too much… [But] they're facing challenges that no other generation has."

Teen view

Anybody carrying a bit of weight gets a slagging

Michael (17) lives in Cork

"I don't really feel embarrassed talking about sex with my friends but it wouldn't be something I'd be comfortable discussing with my parents. I think no matter how liberal Ireland gets, it will always be hard for any teenager to talk about that subject with your parents. RSE [Relationship and Sex Education school syllabus] has really helped to normalise the conversation.

"I do think there's quite a bit of pressure to look well, even for us lads. Anyone who's carrying weight gets a bit of slagging and I suppose you could say it's body-shaming, in a way. I play a lot of sport and like to lift weights but even still I'd see lads in clubs looking seriously fit. There's an expectation to look well. But it's a whole different level for the girls - you'd hear people say that such and such 'hasn't made much of an effort' with her appearance. That's real pressure."

Classmates gave me great support when I came out

Sean (18) lives in Dublin

"I was at Dublin Castle on the weekend of the Marriage Equality referendum and it was one of the happiest days of my life.

"I know I've been really lucky to live in a time where it's okay to be gay in Ireland, but on that day I could see just how much it meant to older men and women. Some of them probably lived through a time when it was not okay not to be homosexual.

"I knew I was gay from a very early age and I think everyone around me did, too. It was no ­surprise when I came out, and although I was a little bit worried about how my classmates would react, they were really great about it. I've felt support - even from the butchest guy there.

"Over the last year, I've been going out to gay bars and finding my feet in that scene. There aren't quite as many guys my age, though, and it's very weird to be hit on by much older men."

We are much more careful sexually than Millennials

Rachel (17) lives in the South East

"We've been exposed to sex from a very early age. Of course, pornography is a factor for some, but I'm talking about everyday culture - the Kardashians, hip-hop videos, fashion magazines. It's all very sexualised.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel pressure to look and dress a certain way but I try not to conform to that. I just want to be myself, but I can totally understand why some of my classmates spend so much time on their hair and make-up and whatever money they have on clothes.

"I hate to use the word conservative, but I do think we are much more careful [sexually] than Millennials. I've no interest in alcohol and neither do lots of my friends and I can say, hand on heart, that I've never felt any pressure to do anything I didn't want to do."

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