Thursday 14 November 2019

Stella O'Malley: 'We should all grow up about sex - and the grown-ups too'

Complexities of age of consent can't disguise that this woman was the child's teacher, writes Stella O'Malley

(stock photo)
(stock photo)
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

When I was 16 years old, I had a sexual relationship with a man who was much older. I was very much in charge in this relationship and, after about a year, I hurt him very deeply when I broke it off with him.

My experience isn't too unusual and perhaps this is why so many of us were particularly engaged with the complexities of the court case last week involving the 23-year-old teacher who had sex with her 16-year-old student.

The fall-out from the illegal sexual relations between the two has been very severe. The woman will be disqualified from teaching, she has been added to the sex offenders' register and she has been jailed for a year. The boy in the case has developed serious life-threatening anxiety and depression.

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Even though it is the mark of a progressive society to be able to cope with ambiguity, we seem to live in a world of increasingly polarised positions, where people are quickly judged as villains or victims.

But the villain or victim view of life is depressingly reductive - few of us in this world are completely good or bad.

The age of consent is vastly different around the world and it seems desperately sad that this woman mistakenly believed the age of consent in Ireland was 16. Indeed, the average global age of consent is 16 and the teacher, who was 23 at the time, waited until the boy's 16th birthday before having sex with him as she believed this was the age of consent in Ireland.

This means that in Ireland this woman is deemed a sex offender - but in the UK, the US and some 140 other countries around the world, their sexual relations would be deemed inappropriate but not necessarily illegal.

In global terms, there is a very wide range of laws about the age of consent.

It is legal to have sex with an 11-year-old in Nigeria and it is legal for 12-year-olds to have sex in the Philippines and in Angola. Some 32 countries around the world, including Germany, Austria, Italy and Portugal, have designated 14 as the appropriate age of consent, while 26 countries decree that 15 years old is appropriate - and a whopping 76 countries, including the US, the UK and Canada, have 16 as the age of consent.

Some countries are more punitive than others and ban sex before marriage.

Only four countries - one of them Ireland - outlaw sexual activities with partners who are below 17, while 40 countries, among them Kenya, Iraq, India and Vietnam hold with 18 as the age of consent.

Complexity and nuance are taken into account in some countries such as Italy where, with an age of consent of 14, they also have a 'close in age' exemption, and this allows 13-year-olds to consent to partners less than three years older.

Italy also acknowledges the abuse of power issue and the age of consent rises to age 16 when one of the partners has power or influence over the other - for example a teacher or a sports coach.

This is why, even if the age of consent was 16 in Ireland, it must be pointed out that this relationship was completely inappropriate and damaging for a whole other reason - this woman was the child's teacher.

Context matters and the fact that she was the boy's teacher changes the entire scenario from inappropriate and illegal to profoundly inappropriate, damaging and illegal. School is a place for children to learn, teachers are supposed to act in loco parentis - and it is the role of the teacher to maintain those boundaries so as to ensure the learning environment is productive.

Teachers need to maintain boundaries so that they don't violate the social contract that asks parents to trust the people that teach their children. It is an abuse of power for an adult to act on the desires of a hormone-riddled youth.

Teachers, therapists, youth workers, sports coaches and everyone else who works with teenagers need to be sensitive to the damaging impact of a sexual relationship with a teenager and so they must take responsibility for the power dynamic and ensure that relationships don't become inappropriate.

The young woman involved in this court case abused her power over this boy. She gave him presents for his birthday, a jumper, aftershave, a highlighter and pens, and then proceeded to have sex with him. I have no doubt that there was an incredibly heightened sexual atmosphere between the two at the time - but, even as an immature and novice teacher, it was her job to understand that weird power dynamics were adding to this heightened sexual atmosphere and it is the role of the adult to take charge of their animal instincts and to behave like the grown-up in the room.

Cases like this one show that it is high time for us to deepen our understanding of sexual relations. We are sexual beings, and it is not easy to move from being an innocent child to becoming a highly sexual teenager.

Many teenagers cannot quite contain their emotions and don't know how to handle their burgeoning sexuality as their brains aren't fully formed and this is perhaps why society shouldn't be allowed to target teenagers with highly sexualised content.

Equally, it is now widely acknowledged that the brain isn't fully mature until the person is about 25 years old and the teacher at the centre of this case was probably as impacted by our relentlessly sexualised and pornified society as the 16-year-old boy.

It is well beyond time for us all to grow up about sex. The relentless sexualisation of society has made sex dirty and porny - but it is high time we reclaimed sex from Pornhub so that we, as sexual beings, learned to reconcile our animal instincts with our more complex, rational selves so that we become free to have loving and intimate sex with compassion, understanding and fun.

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and a public speaker.

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