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Monday 21 January 2019

Court testimony teaches us lessons for our children

Being young has never been so difficult, so how do we safeguard our children now, wonders Sarah Caden

Stock picture: Getty
Stock picture: Getty

Sarah Caden

Thanks to the Easter school holidays, there was a lot of leaping on the radio and the TV remote control last week, in order to protect young minds from events in Belfast. While most of the content was too adult for our children, I questioned to an extent protecting them absolutely.

If the Belfast proceedings and conclusions show us anything, it is that the social and sexual landscape now is different to that navigated by the parents of today only a couple of short decades ago.

It might not have felt like it at the time, but now the 1990s seem positively cosy compared to what lies head for my children.

My generation were no innocents and our world and our youths were wildly different to those of our own parents, but if you'd mentioned spit-roasting to a teen or twentysomething of the 1990s, we'd have been clueless.

Which is not to say that we were naive either. We were a generation who were given sex education along with the message that it was best within marriage and best avoided for fear of getting pregnant outside of said marriage, but we regarded that as throwback claptrap.

We were more interested in the way the rest of the world, slightly ahead of Ireland, had embraced the idea of sex for the sake of it, unfettered by commitment, not strictly within the confines of an emotional connection. Sex was a physical thing, yet another thing to be enjoyed, along with other expectations of my generation - feckless college years, support from our parents, money for drinking, J-1s and summers in Germany.

Fun. We felt entitled to fun. And you wouldn't have to go far to find a twentysomething of the 1990s who knows that sheer luck got them through unscathed. There were nights that too much drink was taken and we were low on clear detail of how the night went or where it ended. There were nights you ended up at parties with people other than those you started the night with. There were inadvisable pairings-off. There were risks taken, risks regretted. We all have hazy memories of events that can make us cringe to this day and count our blessings that we got through relatively unscathed.

We are the generation that hopes their kids will have more sense than we did.

Or we attempted to have that hope, until we watched Belfast unfold before us and struggled to understand the landscape of sexual behaviour and sexual entitlement that faces our children. How do we prepare them for the modern world when it seems so baffling to us? What do we tell them, when we don't really get it ourselves?

I don't know where to start talking to my children about group sex. But maybe I have to, after hearing Dara Florence's testimony about opening the door of that Belfast bedroom and seeing a group activity and barely batting an eye.

I don't know where to start telling my daughters that you need to watch how much you drink and keep your head on a night out, without straying into victim-blaming. But this goes for the guys as much as the girls.

You only have to consider the statement from Stuart Olding to see how that's valid advice for our sons and daughters. He is cleared of any assault, but he says in his statement that he regrets what happened in that room.

He regrets that the girl was hurt, even as he questions her perception, which is contrary to his. If we can advise our kids at all, then, it must be to keep things clear. And one key way to keep things clear is to keep your head clear.

We reflect on our own youthful behaviour and acknowledge that half the marriages in this country were born on nights out with drink taken, but Jesus, they were more innocent times.

The social media wake-up call for parents is not insignificant, either. As far as we were concerned, social media was a benign platform for sharing pictures of the kids being cute and making friends jealous of our holidays. Now, the scales have fallen from our eyes on how it is impacting the next generation.

The messaging between the four young men in Belfast, in the aftermath of the night in question, would turn anyone's blood cold. The boasting, the egging-on, the casual mention of how upset the girl was and the blithe description of how Rory Harrison, "threw her in home" at the end of the night.

It was the worst kind of oneupmanship, the kind that happens all too easily online, where people feel that they can say anything without fear of censure. It's the worst kind of uncensored behaviour, which, like the unfettered access to porn, seems to be having an effect not only on thought and language but on actual, real-life behaviour.

Further, we learnt from this trial that fear of exposure on social media for participating in a group sex might have driven the allegation of rape. It tied in with the 'did something she regretted' line and while it amazed anyone over 40, it made sense to a younger generation, who believe you can live or die by social media.

In the same way, the small detail that having tanned only her arms and lower legs - as the girl texted a friend after that night - was modern-day code for not being up for sex. Again, a generation of 21st Century parents wondered about the world our children inhabit and worried about how to protect them. The rules are beyond us, but the fundamentals should not be.

The glut of books, podcasts and documentaries on the science of the adolescent brain speaks of the parental generation's desire to understand their offspring and to help. We cannot deprogramme the dip in happiness-inducing dopamine that comes with adolescence, though, nor can we prevent their seeking out of thrills to boost it. That seems to be built in to the developing brain, but we can, perhaps, keep talking to our children about the importance of taking a breath, counting to five, or pausing a second before doing something impulsive and potentially regrettable.

This way, perhaps, we help them to believe that they can stop a situation that feels like a train speeding to disaster. This way, perhaps, we can help them to say stop when they need to say stop.

It's not enough simply to tell them to stay relatively sober, stick with their friends, just say no when they mean no. They need to hear that yes can turn to no in a blink and that it's OK for yes to turn to no, at any point in any process. There's no such thing as a point of no return. You stop when you want to stop, if you want to stop. And that goes for everyone in the situation.

If we take Stuart Olding's post-verdict statement as better than just a cynical "I'm sorry if anyone was hurt" attitude, then we see how it is of value to tell our sons, as well as our daughters, that there's no such thing as a point of no return. He says he regrets what happened in that room. We can, perhaps, take that as an indication that he'd go back and make different decisions - and not only for his own sake.

We all hope that our kids take responsibility for their actions, that they respect themselves, respect others. There may be a case for hammering home that sex isn't just physical, it's not just one body meeting another. Your body is more than a vessel, it's what you have, it's yours, you respect it and you demand that of others. And you recognise that other people's bodies matter as much as your own.

You take ownership and you make decisions based on that. Some you will regret, there's no avoiding that, but maybe the conversation needs to start early to keep the regrets relatively small.

Sunday Independent

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