Careful now, as the residents of Craggy Island might say: the Irish State is sponsoring threesomes for teenagers. Was it for this? cried whistle-blowing politicians. Was it for this? cried afternoon radio callers. Was it for this? cried the bones of Éamon de Valera as they creaked and shuffled into an entirely new position.
The alarm was rung by Michelle Mulherin, the Fine Gael TD whose previous claims to fame include the perceptive observation that “fornication” is “probably the single most likely cause of unwanted pregnancies”. Mulherin stumbled – who knows how – upon an article on the website SpunOut.ie which explained what a threesome involved, listed some possible pros and cons, and suggested precautions. (“You’ll need to change condoms if you are switching partners during the threesome”; “only do it if you want to do it”).
But SpunOut.ie is no common internet den of fornication. Instead, it is a partially State-funded service offering a broad range of information and advice to young people. Themes covered include not only sexuality but mental health, bullying, employment, and drugs.
Armed with the necessary outrage, Mulherin brought SpunOut’s orgiastic fantasies to the attention of Health Minister James Reilly. In dour terms, the latter agreed that the piece in question was “not the appropriate sort of information that the State should be putting out there”, and pledged a review of the service.
So far, so Father Ted. However, Mulherin’s most recent foray into the murk of Irish sexual mores may have been useful, albeit not in quite the way that she envisaged. Inadvertently, she has raised an important point: just what sort of sex education is the State actively providing?
Precious little. A global survey released last October indicated Ireland’s atrocious statistical record: almost 30% of people report leaving school with little or no formal sex education. For the remaining 70%, there tends to be a quasi-exclusive focus on heterosexual vaginal intercourse as the gateway to pregnancy and STIs (with an honourable mention for oral sex as an alternate gateway to the latter). Anecdotal evidence suggests that, often, even these limited lessons still come laced with a cocktail of “Catholic guilt” and euphemistic dodgery.
So what sources of knowledge are left? Friends, books, magazines and television all rank as influential, but the internet is the real goldmine. For teenagers – pace Mulherin – do not live in a curriculum-sanctioned vacuum. Questions such as “How does a guy give another guy good head?”, “Can girls enjoy anal sex?” and – yes – “What do you do in a threesome?” are typed into search engines every day. Sometimes they are typed in by those who have an admirable dedication to research but have yet to locate one willing kissing companion, yet alone two simultaneously willing coital ones. Sometimes they are typed in by people who are urgently, pragmatically interested in the answers.
What search results are likely to appear, aside from the bould SpunOut.ie? Swathes of porn sites, obviously, and online versions of “lads’ mags” and “women’s interest” glossies.
It goes without saying the most of the porn in question is not exactly sex-positive, body-positive, consent-celebrating stuff. The online magazines, much like their print counterparts, are as sharply gendered as an average underwear department; their sex advice is as flimsy as the laciest contents of same. One memorable study showed that readers found it next to impossible to distinguish quotations on sex drawn from lads’ mags (sample: “Go and smash her on a park bench”) from those voiced by convicted rapists. As for the girlie glossies, Cosmo’s most recent effort presented both sides of a debate on whether women should sometimes have sex just to keep a partner happy. “Sometimes we’ll agree that I’ll ‘take one for the team’ and he’ll be quick”, wrote the proponent of this method. For a teenage female reader, that’s a far and anxious cry from SpunOut’s emphasis on awareness and consent.
For sex is neither good nor bad, but consent – or lack thereof – makes it so. Through all its permutations, the one thing that sex ‘should’ have is the informed, enthusiastic consent of everyone involved.
The recent Steubenville rape case in the US is an awful illustration of what can happen when adolescents, not to mention the adults around them, fail to understand this principle. Here in Ireland, the Relationships and Sexuality resource package currently available for Senior Cycle teachers contains one section dealing with rape and sexual assault, but offers no guidelines as to how consent might be ascertained in specific situations. If the State is to worry about its sex education – and it is high time that it worried – then this is the kernel that it most needs to address.
What Mulherin does not recognise is this: by not funding more sex education programmes and resources, the State is effectively promoting porn sites, magazines and hearsay as the privileged sources of guidance. Its inaction does not keep young people from the wackier outreaches of the sexual world; it lets them ramble into those outreaches without the compass of a healthy consent framework.
We can and should provide practical, encompassing, inclusive information on sexuality in all its messiness and diversity. We can and must underpin that information with frank discussions of what consent means and how to make damn sure that everybody’s giving it. Threesomes or none, SpunOut.ie is heading in a positive direction in this regard, and forms a useful homegrown complement to excellent websites like Scarleteen.com. It’s not nearly enough, though. More of this sort of thing.
- Emer Delaney
Emer is currently studying for a PhD in Italian & Gender Studies.
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