Forming healthy attitudes

Speaker's Corner
Forming healthy attitudes

Denise Horan


In recent years, a more liberal attitude to sex has emerged in Ireland, partly influenced by the pervasiveness of American culture and partly as a reaction to the unearthing of scandals involving members of the Catholic Church here, the long-time guardians of our sexual repression.
After decades under the carpet, more open discussion on the subject and more enlightened attitudes were very welcome. But in our eagerness to embrace our new-found liberalism, have we taken sex to an extreme level?
Sex, sexually-explicit language, sexual innuendo and sexual images now seem to be everywhere. TV screens, newspapers, magazines, movies and music are full of it. Offices, factories and even classrooms are not exempt from sexual references either.
Adults are entitled to do and say as they wish when it comes to sex - in the privacy of their own homes. They set the limits of what is acceptable and unacceptable to them in sexual matters, and as long as it is legal, it remains their own business.
But who sets the limits for the impressionable minds in our society - our children and teenagers? Not yet having the adult capacity for rationalisation and proper reasoning, they take their cue from us adults, the ones who are supposed to be responsible and wise, the ones who are supposed to protect their innocence. God help them. Taking their behavioural cues from us, it is little wonder that there are so many teenage pregnancies and so many inappropriate sexual relationships involving minors. As role models, we adults do not measure up well.
Instead of debating whether or not the age of consent should be lowered from 17 to 16, we should be asking how the attitudes of our young people can be altered. As two young ladies from Tallaght remarked on the RTÉ news last week, teenagers do not arrive at the age of 17 and think ‘great, I can have sex now’. They do it when they want to, and altering of legislation will not change that.
It is good that our young people are being brought up to be broad-minded and liberal, but they must also learn to differentiate between engaging in activities simply because they can (or because all their friends are) and engaging in them because they feel ready to and want to. Handling liberalism appropriately requires critical faculties. Teenagers are not learning that; instead they are learning - from their peers - that a liberal attitude to sex means doing what you want without asking questions.
The key to addressing this problem lies in teaching. Teenagers should not acquire attitudes to sex by chance, through television or from their peers. They should be taught, as they are taught to respect their elders, to have manners and to clean up after themselves. It should be formalised, both in school and at home.
There is a wider public responsibility too, on the part of all of us adults who are neither teachers nor parents. We too have a part to play in the shaping of attitudes. And society would be better, not only for young people but for ourselves too, if we took it on board.
Society would wear a much less tawdry aspect if adults were a little more circumspect about their relating of sexual exploits. Most of us do not want to overhear details of others’ conquests, but at least as adults we have the ability to let it wash over us, however nauseating the details. Teenagers and children overhearing such stories are much more vulnerable to being influenced.
Society would be a much more fragrant place too if sexual innuendo and sexual references did not form such a big part of everyday discourse. Again, adults can choose not to entertain such tastelessness, but in the presence of persuadable young people such intimations can be interpreted as a mark of adulthood. Little wonder then that teenagers adopt similar habits in their conversations.
As adults, the way we talk, the way we dress, the things we glorify and the things we frown upon, the parameters we set and the sanctions we impose on each other for behavioural transgressions are all picked up on by the young. Ignoring the sensibilities of other adults is a pity, but abdicating our responsibility to the young is a tragedy.