Young girls now face a "hard-core sexual landscape"

Easy access to porn means girls are now more likely to be seen as sexual objects and expected to focus on the sexual pleasure of boys, says Áilín Quinlan.

WITH free porn sites just a click away, girls are now expected to mirror the gyrations of women on the graphic clips, send sexts, and offer oral sex on demand.

American writer Peggy Orenstein’s new book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, takes the lid off the hard-core sexual landscape facing young girls today.

Orenstein says more than 40% of children between the ages 10 to 17 have been exposed to porn online and, warns that, because it usually depicts aggression as sexy, pornography seems to desensitise young women to what is unacceptable.

Ireland, it seems, is no different.

The most frequent question put to workers from the Sexual Health Centre in Cork by girls aged between 14 and 16 is how to give boys pleasure.

“Parents don’t understand this culture — kids are texting and sexting all the time,” warns Sexual Health Centre CEO Deirdre Seery.

There’s no doubt that the generation gap between adults who grew up in a completely non-digital world, and children who have smartphones from an early age, means many parents genuinely don’t realise just what their internet-enabled children — often as young as 12 and still in primary school — are exposed to as a result of their easy online access. 

In fact, a 2011 study by Unicef found that nearly 80% of teenage boys and 40% of adolescent girls had watched porn and that 57% of teenagers in Ireland used the internet specifically to source information about sex.

The Unicef study showed that 21% of teenagers deliberately used it to teach themselves about sex and more than one-third (36%) believed that what they saw in pornography was accurate and educational.

Irish girls are growing up very quickly “in a world where boys are being taught by pornography what to expect and demand from girls”, warns Cliona Saidléar of Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

Boys are being “normalised” into pornography from an early age, she says.

And so too are girls.

Not very long ago, it would have been up to mum to buy ‘the sex book’ or to give the ‘birds and bees’ talk ( I did it myself when my children were growing up).

However, because many of today’s kids have unfettered, often unsupervised, access to online pornography, the internet is taking over that role.

As a result, the power of the parent and the values the parent may wish to instil in a child are often overwhelmed, not just by the tide of no-holds-barred sex online, but also by the subsequent expectations it gives rise to in children and young teenagers about what is normal or acceptable behaviour.

Seery says: “Expectations are created by pornography and the girls then see sex as about giving boys pleasure. 

"It’s not about themselves, it’s about boys and is a purely physical act in which the girls provide a service. 

"It’s something they’re expected to do and something which is not supposed to be a big deal.”

Last September, the ISPCC warned that children as young as 10 were being pressured into sex, revealing that in 2014 more than 30,000 youngsters contacted Childline — the organisation supports children up to the age of 19 — for help with sexual matters.

Increasingly, says Saidléar, young boys are viewing girls as objects: “Almost overnight, girls’ bodies become objects —bodies are being seen as tools,” she says, warning that because of the normalisation of sexual behaviour and sexual aggression through pornography, young people are losing the capacity to understand what normal sex is, or even to name sexual violence.

“Pornography is erasing their autonomy over their own bodies. Normalisation is a really important word here, because it’s what’s imposing the pressure,” she says.

Mary Crilly says 16- and 17-year-olds are telling her that, while they may not want to behave like girls in pornography, “the expectation is there from their peers and from the guys they know or the guy they are going out with.

“Guys want them to watch porn. They’re normalising it, and saying ‘this is what I want you to do’,” she says, adding this could involve copying particular sex acts on a porn site.

Boys are not necessarily forcing girls into such sexual acts she says, but they’re “nudging them and pushing them in the expectation” that they’ll comply.

It doesn’t help that many much-hyped celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and the Kardashian sisters, who are perceived by young girls as glamorous, successful, and wealthy, often appear to falsely equate female empowerment with sexual availability.

“They have the glamour side of it and they have their selfies with their breasts pushed out,” says Seery.

There is, she believes, a definition of femininity that is coming from the porn industry— a “come and get me look”.

“They are taking selfies of themselves looking like Kim Kardashian,” she says, adding that girls don’t necessarily see this as inappropriate.

In fact, she says, the more sexualised the images they upload, the more ‘likes’ they’ll probably receive,” which is their perception of popularity, she says, “from about 14 and up”.

Sexting is commonplace says Mary Crilly of the Cork Rape Crisis Centre. 

But it’s often done in the belief that the sext will go no further than the boyfriend.

Girls tell her that their boyfriend is “a quiet guy”, so they assume, he would never betray their trust by forwarding or sharing a sext, but when the sext inevitably goes viral, it comes as a huge shock.

“The sext does travel, because he shows it to his pal, who shows it to his pal and that’s happening wholesale. It’s not private. 

"There is an expectation that very young girls will send these pictures,” she warns.

Children are increasingly getting involved in sexting at a younger age, says Seery: “We are finding an increasing number of primary schools are calling us in to talk about internet safety and the dangers of the selfie culture.”

Alcohol, particularly in the context of teenage binge-drinking — research published last year shows Irish teenagers as young as 13 years of age are drinking — plays a major role in inappropriate sexual behaviour.

“Once people think sex is just about physical activity, if you drink a lot, then you’re more likely to have sex. Alcohol has a huge effect,” says Seery.

The average age for first sex is 17 or older, according to a 2012 report by the HSE and the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, but having sex before age 17 has been linked to negative outcomes, such as crisis pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). 

However, says Seery, when you analyse the research, those who leave school early or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may start having sexual intercourse earlier, in some cases as young as 15.

“Social class has a huge effect. 

"If young people have a sense of a future, they’re less likely to become pregnant and they start sexual intercourse later,” she says, adding that, however, if young people with lower general levels of education are starting to have sex earlier, they’re also more likely to have shorter, serial relationships, which puts them at greater risk of picking up sexually transmitted infections.

As a parent, it’s increasingly difficult to counteract the messages your children are internalising due to the unrelenting avalanche of sex to which they are exposed.

For parents who grew up in a generation where respecting yourself included not ‘putting out’ on demand, it’s virtually impossible to counteract a message that providing casual oral sex is a form of female empowerment.

As Orenstein points out, the producers of pornography have one goal – to get men off hard and fast for profit.

“This means eroticising the degradation of women,” she says.

And what easier way to do it than by convincing impressionable young girls that exclusively focussing on a boy’s pleasure is actually a form of girl power.

‘Boys use girls and then brag’

Aisling (19)*: “The boys we hung around with when I was 16 would often mention porn.

“They’d show us pictures on their phones or they’d be talking about stuff, and a lot of girls thought this kind of thing was what they should be doing. 

"They’d go along with it. They’d never say ‘stop.’

“The girls would wear very revealing clothes around the boys — they’d come on a night out dressed in conservative clothes so their fathers wouldn’t go mad, but they’d change in the bathrooms of fast food places into very short skirts and belly tops.

“There’d be a lot of talk about how many fellas they’d ‘meet’ in a night. They’d go upstairs with the boys and the boys would want them to go down on them.

“The boys would be getting this stuff off pictures on the internet and wanting the girls to do it. They’d do it because of pressure from the boys.

“We were in a mixed school and some girls would be showing off that they’d been with so many boys and had given so many boys oral sex. They thought this was something that made them popular.

“There’s a lot of pressure on young people, especially girls.

“Boys use girls and then brag to their friends about what they did.

“I’m very concerned now about the effects of porn. A lot of it is coming from the internet and social media.

“The pressure to look sexy is everywhere — even when they pose for pictures they have these pouts that are very sexy.”

* Not her real name

Children ‘have no idea about not over-sharing photographs’

Emma Coughlan health promotion officer with Sexual Health Centre Cork

AT second-level school, Emma Coughlan has discovered, the most common question is how to give oral sex.

At primary level, she reports, parents and teachers are increasingly concerned about a culture in which sixth class girls are ‘meeting’ (French kissing) up to six boys in a night.

As health promotion officer with the Sexual Health Centre Cork, she provides three-hour workshops with second-level students between second year and Leaving Cert on everything from sexual health to internet safety and self-esteem.

Increasingly, however, she’s also being requested to give talks on self-respect and internet safety to primary school children in fifth and sixth class.

“Porn and body issues have become such a problem that schools are requesting that it is spoken about in our workshops, along with internet safety.

“More and more primary schools are requesting phone and internet safety talks from us also because of the whole photo-sending culture.

“Parents and teachers have requested me to talk about self-respect. 

"This is because there’s a culture whereby 12- and 13-year-olds are going out and ‘meeting’ up to six different boys a night and thinking nothing of it.”

Two years ago few primary schools were requesting presentations on internet safety — now about 98% of schools are organising them, she says.

“It can be quite scary — all primary school children have their own phones, nearly all of them are on Instagram and Snapchat, and 60% of them are already on Facebook.

“What scares me a little when I talk about internet safety is they have no idea about not over-sharing photographs or details about themselves.”

And second-level female students, she says, have a lack of awareness about their own bodies.

“When I ask them about their own pleasure they don’t even know what or where the clitoris is on their own vagina — it’s all about the penis and testicles.

“Many girls don’t have a clue about the structure of the vagina by age 14.

We give them an opportunity during the workshop to write down questions and this comes up frequently — asking how to give a boy oral sex.”

She is concerned about the controversial Calvin Klein ‘upskirt’ ad and about the selfie culture, which she warns, is having a huge impact on young girls.

“They see Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner etc as role models and therefore see nothing wrong with sharing posed selfies of themselves revealing cleavage and sticking out their buttocks in seductive ways.

“They wear tonnes of makeup and pose with come-to-bed eyes — girls these days think this is the normal thing to do. 

"Instead of looking up to strong independent women such as; Beyoncé, Emma Watson or Malala Yousifazi, they are looking up to sexualised rich reality stars such as the Kardashians and the characters of Jersey Shore.”


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