Our hypersexualised society is having devastating consequences for children, with teen rape cases far more commonplace writes Claire O’Sullivan

ON a laneway alongside a church, a 13-year-old girl was raped in Cork last year. The rapist was a 17-year-old boy, aided by his friends. Two other boys held the screaming girl to the ground as the older boy viciously attacked her, inflicting untold physical, emotional and psychological pain on a child that hadn’t even started secondary school yet.

According to director of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, Mary Crilly, such stories, while horrific, are becoming more commonplace. Time after time, she is seeing abuse cases where often a shy, young teenager is asked by an older teenager to meet up with him — something that makes her feel “really big”. The first date might go well, even the second and then on the third, she finds herself pinned down and sexually assaulted or raped. The young victim doesn’t know what to do. She mightn’t remember everything as she was drinking. And sure didn’t she agree to meet him? Didn’t she want to kiss him?

“In the case of that 13-year-old girl near the church, the boys just decided that she was a target as she didn’t mix around with others. She was a very quiet little one and they decided to teach her a lesson. The boys’ attitude was ‘Do you think you’re too good for us’?” Crilly explains.

Unlike three out of four rape victims, the 13-year-old made the decision to report the incident to gardaí. However, now she can’t step outside her front door as night after night, a group of young boys and girls gather outside the family home “threatening that they are going to ‘get her’ if she doesn’t withdraw her Garda statement”.

Mary is finding Wednesday, the day that Cork secondary schools are traditionally on half day, particularly busy. In 2009, the centre counselled 25 14-year-old girls. Last year that figure had jumped to 42.

“That figure might not seem like a big jump to you but to me it’s a big jump and it’s very worrying as we are definitely not seeing all the victims.

“A young girl will often feel that she can’t tell anyone as she feels in some way responsible, that they’ll be blamed or that everyone will know and I think that’s because 80% of the victims know who raped them. We are often finding its older boys in the other school or in the same school,” she said.

Across the country, the same worrying trends are emerging. Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald visited the Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) offices last month and top of the agenda for RCNI director Fiona Neary was the increase in child and teenage sexual assault outside the family home.

Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, director of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, has also noted an escalation in the number of younger teenagers that her staff are bringing to Sexual Assault Treatment Units (SATU).

“We are hearing of one school kid sexually assaulting another and it not being reported. Often they are in the same school and often they are in the same classroom. There are also many stories of girls passing out at discos and parties, being abused and then pictures taken and put up on Facebook. It’s appalling,” she said.

As the Listowel case illustrated two years ago, the blame game that too often characterises sexual assault can lead to venal divisions in small communities. So imagine when this community is the battlezone that is the teenage classroom?

“I find so often that the support needed by the victim tends to go to the perpetrator. He will come across to everyone as ‘I don’t know what this is about as I did nothing’ or ‘We did do something but she wanted it’ or ‘I know she’s under age but you can’t blame me as she was all over me’.

“Then, often he’ll go to her best friend, the best friend that said to the girl ‘I’ll be there for you and I’ll look after you’, and they say ‘Could you tell her that I’m sorry, that I didn’t rape her, that I can’t sleep and I’m in bits’. He ups the ante totally as if he’s been the victim. The best friend keeps on passing the messages on to the victim and suddenly, the victim is left thinking who is supporting me? All of a sudden to the victim, everyone will seem to be supporting the perpetrator. There are so many mind games going on,” said Ms Crilly.

Mary Crilly, Ellen O’Malley- Dunlop and all the other women working in sexual assault services have all expressed grave concerns at the hypersexualisation of society and the effects this is having on teenagers. Staff at these centres regularly travel to secondary schools giving talks on sexual health and sexual violence. They are all stunned at the prevalence of pornography.

O’Malley-Dunlop believes that there “can’t but be” a causal link between teenage boys’ 24/7 exposure to pornography and the rise in teenage sexual assault. International research has shown, Mary Crilly also points out, that sex abusers don’t begin abusing in their 20s but during their formative teenage years.

“Remember this generation are being subjected to pornography, not just by choice and they have plenty of that, but on a daily basis through music videos, advertising, television shows. It’s non-stop. Pornography, it is said by those who have been addicted to it, steals your soul,” she said.

Teenagers have admitted that pornography is regularly watched on phones during school time and girls are regularly “sexted” on their phones. The boys admitted that porn is part of a culture that puts “huge pressure on us to be macho”, while the girls said they “were used to porn” but on a deeper level, weren’t comfortable with it but felt helpless to change their environment. As ever, the teenage pressure to “fit in” feeds into everything.

Director of the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre, Ruth McNeely says she has grave fears about the “normalisation” of pornography.

“Pornography is so normalised. It is available and accepted as just part of being young and sexual. Hotels provide adult channels etc. There is no questioning of it or its effects by the majority of society. The normalisation of pornography and drinking as part of our youth culture and their acceptability are for us the key issues.

“We see girls and young women where they feel it is normal to behave like porn stars because this is what they have grown up with. Girls refer to young men’s ‘porn collections’ as totally acceptable.”

Our interviews with the Irish teenagers revealed a near cynicism about sex and relationships and a belief that this generation “can’t be shocked”. However, they all held tightly to a belief that it’s only, arguably, a fifth of them who are blatantly promiscuous from an early age. The remainder, they argue, tend to lose their virginity around a “more acceptable age” of 16 and are capable of saying no in uncomfortable situations. Most of those interviewed said that teenagers are most vulnerable at aged 13 or 14.

Eilis Coakley is a guidance counsellor at Rosses Community School in Dungloe, Co Donegal. She is also president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. She meets young people who aren’t able to cope with the pressure to act sexual or be sexually active from their early teens.

“They are far more exposed than any other generation and have such easy access to sexual material that it becomes normalised. Alcohol is also a huge factor. But they are all far too young emotionally to cope with what they are doing or being expected to do,” she said.

Youth workers have also reported a number of young people choosing to have oral or even anal sex as their first sexual experience as this will remove the risk of pregnancy while other teenage girls have admitted to experiencing aggression from boys when they refused to re-enact certain porn scenes.

Yet, no other generation of young Irish have received as much sex education as this crop. Sex education begins in primary school, continues as part of the second-level curriculum and is often re-examined in extra curricular activities such as youth clubs. Yet, the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STI) in the under 20s remain high. The Well Woman Centre has clinics across Dublin at Ballsbridge, the city centre and Coolock. Medical director Shirley McQuade and her team provide STI screening and have been tracking chlamydia rates for the past eight or nine years.

In women, if chlamydia is not treated it can spread into the uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Permanent damage may result and PID can cause ectopic pregnancies, chronic pelvic pain and tubal-factor infertility. According to Dr McQuade, the under 20s consistently have the highest rates of chlamydia, with 18% of those screened positive for the bacteria.

“The whole attitude of teenagers is risk taking and this belief that all these things they are warned about just won’t happen to them. Basically, the whole problem is that young people think they are indestructible. International research has shown that most younger teenagers are having sex for a year-and-a-half before they think of using contraception,” she said.

Interestingly, however, Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures released this month show the number of births to teenagers decreased from 3,087 in 2001 to 2,019 in 2010. This represents a new 10-year low in the rate of births to teenagers.

Dr Fiona Weldon is a clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Rutland Centre in Dublin. She says it is normal for teenagers, aged 14 and up, to be seeking sexual images.

“How pornography impacts on young people depends very much on the individual. One problem can be if they are looking at it in the long term and become desensitised to images. They may get increasingly more deviant to get arousal — with the risk of more hardcore pornography such as the restraining of women or gang rape. This may then play in their sexual fantasy,” she said.

Pornography and the newer phenomenon of “sexting”, Dr Weldon says, can also feed an emotional disconnect that can be stark in some teenagers. It is a worry if these teenagers use porn as a “coping strategy” because of other problems and poor self-esteem.

Young girls are being flooded with “sexts” from young boys, some of whom they don’t know. These texts can be a graphic description of what a young boy would like to do with the girl, a precursor to real sex if the identity is known or even an invitation to have sex from a stranger.

“Human beings have a need to engage, a need to love and a need to be loved. It can be a danger if a young boy is looking at porn instead of learning how to talk to other people and instead of learning relationship building skills,” Dr Weldon said.

“It compensates for not being in with the ‘in crowd’. It gives anonymity and it also allows control of a situation. Teenagers believe the more they know and the more language they know, they will make up for lack of experience. It is dangerous, however, if a teenager does not learn how to build these skills in the real world.”

Everyone complains about padded bras being sold for nine-year-olds and professes shock at the seeming inability of girl band members to remember to put their knickers on but are any of us really taking responsibility for what we have allowed fester here? We all recognise that “sex sells” but why are we allowing it sell everything from tweenie music to crisps and fridges? Are any of us taking responsibility for the message that is being sent out?

“Western culture has to take a responsibility here,” nods Dr Weldon. “We are all looking at and charged with shaping our children’s environment. We have allowed western culture become all about conformism, being cool, appearance, popularity and money.

“What are we saying to our young people about the value of physically being with people and about valuing relationships and one another?”

In Britain last year, Dr Linda Papadopoulos published a report for the Home Office which examined children’s over exposure to sexual imagery. It found a clear link between sexualised imagery and violence towards women.

The study showed how an increasingly sexualised society is distorting young people’s perceptions of themselves, encouraging boys to become fixated on being macho and dominant, and girls to present themselves as sexually available and permissive.

Professor of sociology at Kent University, Frank Furedi, told BBC News that society as a whole and adults were to blame.

“The whole of society is hypersexualised — sex becomes the common currency through which adults make their way in the world and continually send a signal to children that sex is all that matters,” he said.

“One of the big problems that we are faced with is that increasingly adults have lost the capacity to draw a line between their own attitudes and those of children and increasingly we’re recycling adult attitudes about sex through the prism of children.”

It is all very easy for parents to blame “the media”, whether it is the music industry, the porn industry, advertisers or retailers. However, surely we have to realise that it is adults, as consumers, who have all the bargaining power with these different industries. Why aren’t we flexing our muscle for our children? Why aren’t parents groups, youth organisations and politicians fighting for children’s right to a childhood?

According to Reg Bailey — author of a report, Letting Children be Children, commissioned by the British Department of Education — parents are too often “complicit” in the “unthinking drift towards ever greater commercialisation and sexualisation of children”.

“I was alarmed at the number of parents who were complicit in buying 18-rated video games for their children. One father said it was OK that he played Grand Theft Auto with his 13-year-old son because it helped them bond together... There must be easier ways of bonding with a child than playing a game that allowed gangsters to run over prostitutes,” he said.

Guidance counsellor Eilis Coakley and Ellen O’Malley Dunlop from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre both agree that if children are to be children, then parents will have to be parents.

“Parents need to be internet savvy, to know where their children are, who they are hanging out with and what places they are frequenting,” says Coakley.

“I know of one colleague whose 14-year-old son was pestering her to go to a particular disco for ages. Eventually, she said ‘yeah, you can go but I’ll bring and collect you’. She knew the craic. She knew it was all about the drinking on the bus and that all about the craic that went on afterwards. In the end, the boy said no. He wasn’t bothered going.”

Any of the professionals underline the importance of talking with your children about the consequences of their choices, and more importantly, of creating the type of relationship where such conversations can take place without doors being slammed and tempers flaring.

“Teenagers need a space to discuss these issues. If you talk to them about mugging, they will be all about anger and retribution as they see it as violence, but they often don’t see the same issue with sexual violence,” says Coakley.

The youth organisation, Foróige has just piloted a teenage sexual health programme it intends to roll out from September. Modules on relationships and relationship boundaries are part of the core programme while modules on pornography, contraception and sexual violence are elective.

Caoimhe McClafferty, programme designer withForóige, says that realistically, you won’t be able to prevent teenagers from accessing porn but you can “be really clear with them about the messages these images send”.

“We tell people that they have to be aware of the consequences of pornography and how you can’t expect girls to re-enact what you have watched, that they are paid actresses and this is not real life. The big worry is that boys will base relationships on what they are seeing,” McClafferty says.

She believes parents must remove the stigma from discussing it: “The thing is once you open these conversations with young people, it will flow. Parents shy away from it but we have to break down the secrecy as it is too important.”

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre runs a Body Right programme in schools and Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop believes “teenagers are only dying to have the conversation around what is expected in a good relationship compared to a bad relationship”.

“They are a very confused generation. The teenagers are still not able to psychologically process a lot of what is happening around them and in some cases, not able to process what they are doing,” says O’Malley-Dunlop.

“Older girls nowadays are craving intimacy. They may have done it all but are so let down by it all... they are nearly traumatised from what they have done.”

She is adamant that not only children but parents need to be educated about what is really happening with their children.

“We need education, education, education, for first, second and third level and for parents. We need a big conversation on this as so many children are being catapulted into adulthood. Parents need to learn to refuse more and they must learn to take stick from their teenagers. We don’t want you to be all Mary Whitehouse but children must be allowed to have their childhood. Teenagers, like children, need boundaries to feel secure.”

Cork Sexual Violence Centre helpline: 1800-496-496

Rape Crisis Network Ireland helpline: 1800-77-88-88


The porn addicts: ‘What began as curiosity became obsession


Originally from the country, 55-year-old James says his addiction manifested itself between the ages of 19 and 22.

The city provided a readily available supply of pornography.

“What began as curiosity soon became an obsession, and then compulsion, and eventually addiction.”

Addicted for much of his adult life, he also suffers from alcohol and anger addiction, and did not found counselling and similar resources effective at the outset.

Sober since 1984, and at the milestone where his recovery is a way of living rather than a workload, he now experiences a level of peace he previously thought impossible.

He champions the forum-based website, www.no-porn.com, which allows both addicts and their partners to discuss the addiction. He says one of the greatest difficulties was overcoming the social stigma, and says the anonymity the website offered allowed him to truly begin the recovery process.

Drawing a contrast to alcoholics, he says that “they will be embraced and offered empathy”. He says with pornography and masturbation addiction, maybe only lepers were looked down on with such “ugly intensity”.

Despite, at one stage, considering self-harm and suicide, he is aware of his lowest point. He had rented a pornographic video to watch, while, unbeknownst to him, his wife was lying in accident and emergency.

“Looking into her eyes, which were filled with tears … asking me ‘where were you?’ and I lied to her. That was the lowest moment in my life. That ignited the spark that became recovery.”

His advice to other addicts is to take a sincere look in the mirror. Recovery can be reached only if you give up your secrets.


JOHN, 49, has been free of pornography for nearly 250 days, a feat which has taken 15 years to achieve.

He does not feel immune, but, rather, fortunate that he has reached a point mentally where he can recognise and avoid the thought patterns that lead back to addiction.

Despite having spent close to €18,000 on recovery, he says it is a worthwhile trade, declaring that his empathy, patience and ability to connect with others have all improved.

He said that society lies to its citizens. “Porn is no more necessary than arsenic pie. Sex isn’t a basic need, and that one will shock a lot of people. It may be a drive, but no one dies because they don’t get a sexual release.”

He said that external help is the only path out of addiction.

“You have to be willing to reach out and grab the rope that is thrown to you and struggle with all your might to get out. You have to be willing to re-write your belief system.”

He cautions that a mistake many make is that freedom requires religious conviction. It may aid some, but it is not a necessity.

Determination, dedication and expertise bring escape from addiction, John said.


BRENDAN, a 32-year-old father of one, contacted the ABC for therapy having been confronted by his wife over his use of pornography.

Brendan admitted he was watching online pornography while claiming to be working in the evenings, and owned up to visiting several prostitutes, spending money they could ill-afford.

Brendan was quite distressed attending therapy, feeling deeply ashamed of his behaviour and believing that his marriage was at risk.

“I felt like my life had ended. I couldn’t believe the mess I had got myself into. In a way, having that conversation with my wife brought the reality home to me. I would watch pornography, often into the early hours of the morning, while my wife went to bed alone, and pretend I had some urgent work to do. And each time after I’d finished, I’d promise myself I wouldn’t do it again — but I’d be at it again the following night,” said Brendan.

“The worst was when I’d go to a prostitute. I’d be excited and on a high beforehand, not able to think straight or even think about how my wife would feel. And afterwards, I’d be filled with guilt and remorse. I even considered suicide once.

“I felt there was something wrong with me, like I was dirty or evil or something. I very nearly didn’t go through with the appointment to meet the therapist. Thankfully, I did and it was great to finally talk to someone about it. I felt like the therapist understood, you know, that I didn’t want to be doing these things but just couldn’t stop. It was a relief to finally be able to get it all off my chest and I began to understand the addiction myself and get some relief from it.

“I learnt that the secrecy was a huge part of the problem, and, thankfully, my wife was very supportive, though I know I hurt her dreadfully. After a couple of months, she came along to therapy with me and it really helped our relationship,” he said. Brendan continued in one-to-one therapy for some months before joining group therapy, facilitated by therapists from the ABC, and continues to make good progress.

“The group has been a huge help to me. It was great to meet other people, ordinary people just like me, who had the same story to tell.

“I got great support and help from people in the group and I really believe the whole process of therapy saved me from getting totally out of control and ending up who knows where,” Brendan said.

Picture: Getty Images

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