The age-of-consent dilemma
The current debate about whether or not the age of consent for sexual activity should be lowered to 16 is dominating the headlines. Many teenagers are having sex at a much earlier age than would have been the case some years ago – and this is causing concern and alarm, particularly among the parents of these teenagers. Eileen Good spoke to Pat Coyle, Manager of the Jesuit Communications Centre in Dublin and a mother of two teenagers, and she first asked her what message the debate is sending out to our teenagers.
Pat: Well I think as a society, maybe reluctantly, we are saying that young people are maturing more and more at an earlier age and I think the people who made that proposal were looking at it in the light of that belief. I don’t think that they were a group who were trying to damage the morality of the youth of Ireland and what I really welcome is that least the debate has opened up and it’s sent a kind of electric shock through society. So maybe we can all talk about teenagers and sexuality now because as a mother of two teenage children, I have been very worried about how to even approach them on the topic and when I tentatively try to they want to run mile they’re so embarrassed!
And yet it is probably the most sexualised generation, because of the culture that we live in. The TV images, the ads, the music videos that they watch, the fashion they’re offered. If you look at the clothes in vogue for young adults you’ll see the exact same smaller tailored version for eight and nine year olds! So many of these facets of young people’s culture today have explicit sexual overtones and the pressure of that culture has sexualised many of them from an early age. So I’m saying that this is a good opportunity to really discuss what I think lots of parents out there are really worried about. Mothers and fathers worried about their sons and daughters and the whole way that they are approaching their sexuality, worrying are they sexually active at too young an age?
Eileen: So how do you talk to young people about sex, and their sexuality and their responsibilities?
Pat: With difficulty I think! I’ve spoken to many parents who’ll tell you that when they try to broach these topics with teenagers (not really with younger children) that their kids are mortified and tongue-tied. They want out of the conversation as quick as possible. And they see no contradiction in the fact that they are not too embarrassed to go to a disco at fourteen wearing a cropped top and a real short mini skirt, but they would be mortified if you caught them in the same state of relative ‘undress’ at home. They are in many ways naturally protective and concerned about their modesty, to use that old-fashioned word, but the culture they inhabit serves them so badly and demands the opposite of them when they enter into it. So I wouldn’t mind some help from parents who’ve walked that road or from professionals who can give us some guidelines here because the kids aren’t getting too many guidelines in their own peer culture.
Eileen: And that peer culture often means that whatever rules you try to lay down for your teenagers they come back and say ‘but everybody else is doing it.’
Pat: Absolutely. And that’s where the legal issue is very important and I’ll explain why. I had a discussion with my kids about drink for example, and I told them that I didn’t want them drinking until they were eighteen. ‘Oh but everybody’s drinking before then’ I was told. We had a prolonged discussion that got nowhere about who was and who wasn’t drinking but eventually I was able to say, ‘Well its not really relevant if everybody is doing underage drinking, because it’s still illegal. This society says it is against the law to drink alcohol if you’re under 18 and there are very good social, moral and physical reasons why that is the case. If you drink now then you’re involving yourself in illegal activity which involves social workers and Gardai.’ I found it a great source of security and support to be able to invoke not just myself and their father but the wider society and its legal sanctions as well.
Eileen: But if the legal age of consent now comes down to the age of sixteen and they can turn around and say ‘but it is legal Mum.’
Pat: And that’s my point. That is one of the key reasons why I would think that I would prefer it staying at seventeen years of age. There is no need to tamper with something that wasn’t even an issue before the committee raised it. And I do think that the committee came up with some very good recommendations, in response to a particular legal dilemma and I hope that they are not all jettisoned now with all the focus and attention that’s given just on this issue. But I don’t think they even needed to really go into this area in the first place. That being said, it has hit into a vein in Irish society and I hope some helpful discussion can come from it. It is interesting if you note some of the coverage, some of the papers and editorials which would usually be quite hostile to the Church , have actually been saying that the Bishops in their statement have raised interesting points and they’re saying we need to dialogue with them.
Eileen: But to come back to the point you made about the Church. I mean is this an opportunity for the hierarchy to actually give moral leadership, to show people that they too are concerned about this development in society?
Pat: Of course. They have a right to speak out on these matters, as do other people who professionally or experientially can add to the debate, and I include young people themselves in that. Bishop Willie Walshe put his finger on the wound in an interview on RTE radio, when he was asked was he angry about the proposal and he replied, ‘No this isn’t about anger, this is much deeper.’ How right he is. Our children are facing into a sexual moral quagmire and many of the institutions of authority that in the past guided other generations (or at least gave them something to rebel against!) have been discredited and mean little to them. But we have to be prepared to take responsibility for our children and for the society they will grow up in, no matter how strong their counter culture. It’s an opportunity for us I think, to gather our courage again. Our children deserve a lot of respect and a lot of understanding. But they also deserve our rigorous reflection on matters ethical and legal, and our concern for their moral and spiritual wellbeing in a highly sexualised culture. Their future is our legacy.