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Friday 29 August 2014

The saddest Irish sexual revolution

John Meagher

Published 10/02/2013 | 06:00

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The clothes Rihanna wears influences teenagers.

Majella Ryan has noticed an alarming trend. Children as young as nine are engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour.

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"I'm seeing cases of pre-pubescent children masturbating each other and children under 12 who are simulating sexual intercourse. More often than not, they don't know what they're doing – they're simply acting out what they're seeing in music videos, television shows and, in some cases, hardcore pornographic sites. But such behaviour can be very harmful for them in the long term."

Ryan, a psychotherapist, is the national clinical director of the CARI Foundation, a voluntary organisation that supports children affected by sexual abuse. This week, she warned parents about the dangers posed by the increased sexualisation of society.

She told the Weekend Review: "It's everywhere. From the revealing 'adult' clothes that are marketed to children to the pornography which can be accessed so easily: there's just no escape."

Ryan believes the proliferation of smartphones has helped facilitate children's access to graphic sex images and videos. "It has changed the game – there's no doubt about it. Children are being forced to grow up so much quicker. Their childhoods are being snatched away from them and that's evident from the wide gamut of sexual activity we're seeing in children and young teens.

"Parents need to keep a close eye on what sites their children are accessing. In some cases, they may inadvertently happen upon adult-only content. Not only is their childhood innocence being lost but they can grow up with very skewed ideas about sex, such as the idea that pornographic sex is normal.

"That's especially the case with boys – they can get desensitised to the fact that pornography is degrading and, often, violent towards women. And, as a result, their expectations of what young girls will do sexually has been warped by what they're seeing online, on TV and in music videos."

It's a view shared by psychotherapist Joanna Fortune. "Children are able to access pornography at a far younger age and it is shaping their views on sex and intimacy.

"Both boys and girls are under immense pressure to be sexually active and one of the dangers of pornography is that it can artificially heighten expectations and normalise behaviour such as unsafe sex. They're unlikely to see condoms used in the pornography they're watching."

Fortune, who is director of the Dublin-based Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic, says the all-pervasive sexualisation has even changed the language: "The word 'rape' has lost its potency. You hear young boys using it in a jocular fashion. Female friends think nothing of playfully referring to each other as 'bitches'. It's almost a badge of honour."

She believes the sexualisation of children begins early and insists that even something as seemingly innocuous as having a toddler's ears pierced is giving them the wrong signal. "It's forcing them to grow up sooner than they should," she says. "It's the same thing with clothes. Little girls wanting to replicate Beyoncé or Rihanna's style of dress are being facilitated – we're seeing that every day, just look around you. Instead, their parent or guardian needs to explain to them that Beyoncé can wear these revealing clothes because she is a grown-up. And then there are the clothes with overtly sexual slogans on them: I actually saw a child's top bearing the words 'All daddy wanted was a blow job' in a magazine."

Fortune is also strongly opposed to the phenomenon of taking girls to beauty salons. "There's nothing wrong with a little girl playing with hair and make-up, but bringing them for so-called pamper packages, where they have soft drink 'champagne' cocktails and manicures, is inadvertently pushing a sexual message on them too early."

Fortune says the growth of social media, coupled with technological advances, has played a part in children being more sexually active than before. "I've heard about girls as young as 13 who have sent naked photos of themselves to boys who they hoped would be their boyfriend, and then those photos have been distributed on the internet. Of course, once that happens they're online for good."

Such a phenomenon has been brought into sharp relief in recent weeks due to the tragic story of 13-year-old Londoner Chevonea Kendall-Bryan. The schoolgirl had performed a sex act on a boy which he filmed. "How much can I handle," she had texted him. "Honestly. I beg you, delete that."

She had threatened to jump to her death if he did not erase the recording – and climbed on to the window ledge of her fourth-floor home. The coroner at the inquest into her death said he did not believe the youngster meant to die.

Nathalie Marquez Courtney is editor of KISS, Ireland's only magazine aimed at teenage girls. She is familiar with the pressures her readers face when it comes to sex.

"One story I heard was from a mum whose 13-year-old was going to her first disco. Before running out the door the girl said, 'Oh wait, I haven't taken off my knickers! You're not allowed go unless you take them off.'

"The 13-year-old had genuinely no idea what the implications of her actions were – she was very honest with her mum, they had a great relationship and the mum knew her daughter had never even kissed a boy. The teen just thought it was what she had to do to fit in."

Marquez Courtney says the media plays a major role in making society increasingly sexualised. "Sites that pit women against each other or devote paragraphs to discussing how awful someone looked on the red carpet send a powerful message to teens about what is desirable and how they are supposed to look and act. The scary thing is that it's everywhere – particularly online. They might Google their fave celeb just to get inspired by her outfit choices and land on a website that's tearing her to shreds.

She believes "having a strong sense of self really helps you hold your own when you're feeling pressured", but is keen to point out the pivotal role that parents should play: "The current generation of teenagers has parents who are doing a lot of things right – they want independence and creative freedom for the kids, and they really want to forge relationships with them. The downside is that they tend to avoid conflict or disciplining them and steer clear of the awkward or uncomfortable issues.

"I often have parents thanking me for the features in KISS, saying 'Thank God I don't have to talk to her about this stuff' and I'm a little surprised – you should be talking to your teenager about these issues. We get a lot of emails from readers who have brought personal problems to their parents and said that their mum or dad has reacted awkwardly and not been able to talk to them about it.

"The conversation needs to be on-going – she won't come to you with the more awkward, difficult stuff if there isn't a habit of dialogue in the house."

Mother-of-four Jackie O'Callaghan, the spokesperson for the National Parents' Council (Post-Primary), echoes those sentiments. "Communication is absolutely vital, as is good, old-fashioned parenting. Children need all the help they can get to help them through those challenging years when they first start secondary school.

"Those parents who want to be their child's friend and don't set boundaries can be doing more harm than good. I'd worry that parents who feel they are time-poor are over-compensating by giving their children a bit too much freedom for their own good."

O'Callaghan says the spectre of pre-teens being handed smartphones as a matter of course has to stop. "Why do children that young need to have access to the internet 24/7? Parents have to start saying 'no' or, at the very least, have a conversation with the child about what can and cannot be viewed online. You might feel you've lost control, but you haven't."

Regaining parental control is a central plank of Steve Biddulph's latest book, Raising Girls. The Australian psychologist contends that some parents who are "over-involved one minute, distracted the next" have only themselves to blame if their child becomes sexualised too early. "Having your daughter as a friend," he writes, "so much easier than actually raising her."

Biddulph argues that parents should seek out "aunties": tech-savvy guardians in their 20s and 30s who follow their daughter on Facebook and other social-media sites and report back at the first sign of anything worrying. "Safety," he insists, "takes precedence over privacy."

The British author Allison Pearson believes Biddulph's advice is sound: "Call that snooping? I don't give a damn. You wouldn't let your child wander unprotected in a real alien land, so why is this virtual one any better?

"I know it's embarrassing, and no one wants to have the conversation, but as a society we really do need to teach children a healthy, emotionally connected view of sexuality that has nothing to do with the porn version that has saturated their parallel world.

"Sex education should be as much about psychology as biology. And the advice to our darling daughters needs to be hastily updated. For example: 'Oral sex does not generally precede kissing in a relationship with any boy worth loving'."

Yet, despite fears of an overly sexualised world, Celine Kiernan, the Irish author of young adult fiction, cautions against talk of a moral panic. "The vast majority of teens I meet are grounded, intelligent and savvy," she says.

"Their self-awareness is a lot better than it would have been when I was that age. They are not in the dark about sex as so many previous generations were.

"It's important that their views of sex don't become warped, which is why parents need to keep the lines of communication open and not be frightened of a changing world."

Irish Independent

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