VICTORIA WHITE: Empowerment of teenage girls is best chance to halt predatory men

Young girls in Ireland have always been and still are the object of male desire. They must be empowered to deal with unwanted attention, writes Victoria White

THE year I turned 16, older men were all over me. This isn’t something I’ve “addressed” in my life, as the expression goes. It’s just a fact I remember with repugnance.

Under what is now a hail of horror stories about older men and young girls — or a boy in the allegation made against the actor Kevin Spacey — I realise that some of what I experienced at 16 and 17 could be categorised as abuse. 

The most obvious case was an appalling man-handling in the car of a middle-aged man with whom I’d hitched a lift.

I didn’t put up much of a fight. I remember being fatalistic about the whole affair.

I was having a terrible night anyway. A depressed, vulnerable teen, I was kicked out of my friend’s house for using bad language and I hitched because I had no bus fare.

I remember quite clearly being kicked off a bus for having no fare but that was not CIÉ policy at the time so it may be a false memory.

What I do know is that by the time I hit the kerb I believed on some level that I deserved to be attacked.

I was a classic abuse victim because I was vulnerable.

Predatory men can literally smell vulnerability and I attracted a swarm of would-be abusers.

For some reason the most shocking memory I have of that year is of standing at a bus stop in a European country where I was working for the summer only to see a car drawing up as if for a prostitute. I told the elderly man who got out that I was waiting for the bus. It was a bus stop, after all.

He excused himself and drove off.

The minute I got off the plane in that country I came under attack. A man tried to persuade me he’d give me a lift to the city where my job was. I pretended to go to the toilet and ran.

My employer’s friend, another middle-aged man, tried to get me to come and stay at his home in another city. I had to literally throw one of my employer’s male relations out of my bed.

Of course I had many other unfortunate encounters as I matured as a young woman but the year I turned 16 — and I was a perfectly ordinary 16-year-old — I had to fight middle-aged and elderly men away.

By the time I reached the age of 18 I knew how to tell old geezers where to go. I started a great relationship with a boy my age and my confidence soared.

The next time I was manhandled by a guy with whom I hitched a lift I got out in time.

Years later, I recognised the man in a new workplace. I waited until I had everybody’s attention and then announced: “Now I think it’s time I told everyone where I first met Mr X.”

I still chortle to myself when I tell that story. But it wasn’t something I could have done when I was younger.

I feel it has to be said that it is common for older men to be attracted to sexually mature girls who are still minors.

The recent focus on extraordinary abuse cases against high-profile figures has perhaps given the impression that sexual predation on teens is unusual.

My experience growing up in Ireland was that the threat of predation was omnipresent and though it hurts me, as the parent of a 15-year-old girl, to say this, I can’t believe things have changed very much since then.

These liaisons were on the border of being acceptable in society. Watching the film Mamma Mia at the weekend with my kids, I noted how the ABBA song ‘Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out?’ was sanitised by featuring an older woman and a younger boy.

I think it’s important to distinguish between classic child sex abuse and the misuse of power to achieve sexual access to a young, sexually mature girl or boy.

It is the misuse of power which is the issue to be tackled here, rather than classic paedophilia.

Couplings of older men and sexually mature young girls are common internationally and are still acceptable in some cultures.

Nigeria has the world’s lowest age of consent at 11, but even rich Japan’s is 13.

The Netherlands set its age of consent at 12 until 2002 though there were many limitations
designed to contain exploitation. Spain only raised its age of consent from 13 to 16 in 2013.

Even today the age of consent in many European countries including Hungary, Italy, Germany and Portugal is 14, while 15 years is the European average.

Ireland stands with Cyprus in having an age of consent of 17 years and only Malta and the Vatican City go as far as 18 years.

There was a move a few years ago to lower the age of consent to 16.

The Rape Crisis Centre rightly spoke out against the proposed change, saying it would only mean “the State stops being responsible in that way for that child”.

Consensual sex between two teens will never be on the State’s radar. It is the exploitation of power over a young person which the State must seek to stop and a higher age of consent is a helpful tool, along with the excellent legal stipulation that a person in authority over a young person must not have sexual contact with the young person until he or she is over 18.

An imbalance of power is more significant than an age difference.

Many older men will eye teens with desire but they’ll only try it on if they feel they have more power than the teens.

THE best way of stopping young girls and boys having unwanted sexual contact with older men is to empower them.

This will be a far more effective tool than moral panic: Dire warnings about the dangers of running onto a football pitch or calls to throw away the key when a sex offender is incarcerated.

Clearly, it’s not easy to instill power into teens who feel powerless but that’s what’s needed.
A programme aimed at empowerment should run across the school curriculum and back into homes.

Young girls and boys should know as well as their ABC that they and only they choose their sexual partners and only when they’re ready.

The emphasis should be on empowerment, not prohibition.

We need to instill in young girls and boys a love of their own bodies and a determination that they’re too good, rather than too young, to be touched by old geezers.

Legal restrictions only go so far. Most cases of sexual exploitation never go to court and many would be hard to classify as illegal.

A cast-iron certainty that “they are worth more” is our teens’ best weapon against unwanted sex.

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