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“Porn and pressure: the teen sex scene” (in Ireland)

04/04/2013

OK, I wasn’t sure whether to blog about this or not. The title comes from Kate Holmquist’s article in the Irish Times.

The reason for hesitancy is not so much the subject matter but the risk of tabloid-like shock-horror journalism. It thrives on a cynical stirring up of moral outrage combined with salacious storytelling, leaving the reader feeling simultaneously morally superior and yet with his/her prurience happily satisfied. There’s a vast appetite for this sort of news.

So, I’ll try to avoid the self-righteous, ‘isn’t the world awful?’ tone.

Anyway, to Holmquist’s article: It comes on the heels of a kerfuffle about the Health Service’s Executive’s sponsored mental health website Spunout, which offers advice to over 16s. The kerfuffle was that this included advice on threesomes.

Holmquist tells a remarkably honest story of the confused, dispiriting, technological, and pervasively pornographic world of Irish schoolchildren. And this written not by a ‘crusading conservative’ but as a journalistic descriptive piece. Some things she describes:

- The normalisation of porn among the very young

- the aggressive pressure on teenage girls to perform sexually; oral sex, anal sex, looking like a porn star

- psychological damage on both boys and girls

- sexting: subsequent public exposure

- for 12 yr olds to have got certain sex acts ‘out of the way’ before secondary school. And 17 yr olds to have got other acts done by mutually agreed deadlines, even they technically remain virgins in the process

- the hit and miss sex-education programmes that may (or may not) teach mechanics of health and safety “but they can’t teach you your morals”

I could write in shocked mode but the truth is I’m not shocked – what the children interviewed in the article are saying is what you hear as a parent. This is ‘Catholic Ireland’ 2013.

This cyber-sexual world is a ruthless and joyless one.  It isn’t just about ‘freedom’ and the ‘liberation’ for children to ‘choose their own lifestyles’. This is porn capitalism diversifying into and exploiting another market, extending its reach via technology, to a younger and younger demographic. It promotes relentlessly the objectification of girls and what I can only call the enslavement of boys.

It’s a world without boundaries – apparently either legislative or moral. The response Holmquist describes is almost literally hopeless. There appears to be little ethical or cultural basis from which to respond. It’s also a world, according to Holmquist, that adults are scarcely aware of.

Moral panics have been regular features of the Irish (and British) landscape as Christendom disintegrates bit by bit. On the launch of RTE in 1961, Eamon de Valera warned of TV’s ‘nuclear power’ to destroy morality. It was in 1966 that mention (by a married woman!) of not wearing a nightie on her wedding night caused a public rebuke to RTE by the Bishop of Clonfert no less. But those (and later) moral panics around the disintegration of parts of Irish Christendom sound quaint when it comes to the impact of globalised porn on culture as a whole.

We live in a culture saturated by sex. It’s commercial and it’s everywhere via multiple technological platforms. Children have never before been exposed to such explicit images and explicit ideology, without mediation from anyone. And the ‘explicitness index’ goes up every year.

The message is sex as a natural impulse to be met without any consequences. It is a right to be demanded. It is an obligation to fulfil in even a transitory relationship.  This is porn sex, fantasy sex; utterly divorced from relationship, from responsibility, from love, from maturity, from reality.

10 years ago Bryan Appleyard wrote a piece on ‘Save us from Sexcess’. In it he talked about how the Marquis de Sade and

Every laptop and PC is only a few clicks away from a Sadean debauch that would have glazed over the eyes of the marquis himself.

Things have moved on quite a bit since then but his points still tell. He wrote about Sade that

Sade’s fabulous propensity for excess was, he well knew, “poison”. But it was his genius to make it poison with a point. The point was partly to show the suffocating aridity of bourgeois erotic reticence. But, more importantly, it was to expose the limits of human reason.

In other words, Sade may have been crazy, but he was locked up more for what he thought than what he did. He wanted to ridicule the Enlightenment idea of humanity’s pure reason. He wanted to show human nature is a mixture of lust, desire, irrationality as well as reason.

Whether that captures Sade’s motivation or not is not the point. It does highlight the utter emptiness and steely soulessness of modern day pornography that outdoes Sade in its perversity, inhumanity and in its immorality. Its goal is to make money, nothing more than that. And it doesn’t care who gets destroyed in the process.

These are issues and values that need to be talked about in public. I’m no expert on this, just a parent – but it seems to me that the best ‘defence’ against destructive sexual behaviour among children is parental education, a healthy self-respect, a moral framework for sexual identity, and an understanding of what sex is for. That doesn’t come easily or naturally in a culture where to raise issues of morality or values seems to gets you labeled a 21st version of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

But they also pose questions to Christians. A porn culture among teenagers is the logical extension of industrialized and consumerised sex in the wider culture. A culture with little or no unease with the vision that unlimited individualized desires can and should be fulfilled. Where the self is at the centre of an experiential consumerism. A culture shaped by the daily consumerist process temptation, seduction and arousing desire, where acquisition is happiness and consumption is self-fulfilment.

It’s not much good shaking our heads at the cyber-sexual world of teenagers, and yet happily and uncritically following the consumerist dream ourselves.  The challenge for the church is to form habits of the heart and mind that lead to counter-cultural lives shaped by the cross and the Spirit. Lives that are full of love for God and for others. Lives that can enjoy and celebrate sex; where sex is ‘for the other’ within a marriage that is not there ‘to make me happy’ but is a lifelong covenant commitment through thick and thin.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 05/04/2013 4:17 am

    Great article. I’m sorry to say it’s as least as bad here, in America.

  2. 05/04/2013 10:01 am

    While in general agreement with the thrust of what you are outlining, I’m not sure about the angle you are taking here Patrick. As a teenager I used to think the people most certain to misinterpret rates and trends in teen sex activity were other teens. It makes it very difficult to take any measurements because the people involved are unreliable witnesses.

    But what stats we do have seem to suggest a narrative more complex than the one you present:

    http://www.livescience.com/28339-teen-sex-fears-overblown.html?cmpid=514645

  3. 06/04/2013 4:48 am

    I have come to believe that what we are seeing is the reality of freedom and the reality of our own brokeness. Yet Galatians also tells us that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Our problem right now is that our freedom is revealing our hearts and our understanding and both are lacking. But these teens will grow up to be adults who understand what their kids are facing and be better equipped to help them navigate the mess. I know that I have been able to do a much better job of teaching my kids about sexuality than my parents did. It won’t be uniform and unfortunately, many will be hurt on the way. But it’s also not hopeless.

  4. 06/04/2013 10:01 am

    Thanks Tim.

    Kevin, I did a bit of research (!) by talking with teens I happen to know and the picture from their schools was mixed. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of ‘moral panic!’, but it’s a (more?) complex world to negotiate for teens, made even more complex by pervasive technology?

    Thanks Rebecca. I agree – contrary to wider narratives of Christianity being legaiistic and repressive etc, that a Christian view of sex and sexuality brings great hope and freedom.

  5. 06/04/2013 10:10 am

    Well I suppose I’d like to propose that teenagers aren’t very good at assessing teen sex activity. They can only speak accurately about their own experience and that of their closest circle of friends, which is inherently anecdotal. They speak lots about general practices but that talk is loaded with exaggeration and bravado on one side and reticence and cultures of shame on the other. It is unlikely that any single set of conversations with teens will give rise to solid information.

    And that is even without the confirmation bias of parents who are oftentimes somewhat emotionally invested in their children! :)

    So I think in this context, it is important for us to pay more attention to the positive research coming out of extensive and wide-ranging studies. The pornofication of society is a subject we absolutely should be addressing as Christians. You know I’m right behind you. But there is increasing research to suggest that equipping young people with sex education decreases harmful sexual practices. That is equally significant.

    The stats that we’re seeing in places where sex education is engaged in unapologetically are amazing to me. If in Ireland we followed that lead and somehow reduced teen drunkenness, we would make the world a lot safer for adolescents, even with the pervasive commodification of bodies for profit that is porn. I know that I’m making a Stackhousian “Let’s make the best of a bad situation” argument. You can attack me for forgetting my purist principles in person. :)

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