Threesomes advice is no worse than what’s in most young women’s magazines

A recent Spun Out “threesomes” controversy is a distraction from issues such as sexual aggression and porn

Wed, Mar 27, 2013, 08:10

In secondary school, I had a liberal biology teacher. When it came to the most eagerly anticipated section of the syllabus, he guided us gamely though the diagrams of the penis and the uterus, and then instructed the unusually attentive 14- and 15-year-olds to ask him anything they wanted about sex.

We promptly came up with the most excruciating questions we could think of – not because we wanted answers, but because we were nasty cretins intent on embarrassing him (as far as I remember, they involved oral sex and breastmilk).

Teenagers are deeply curious about sex and hungry for details – but they don’t necessarily want them from their teachers or their parents. So breathe a big sigh of relief, grown-ups, because that awkward conversation you’re dreading has been had already, many times over, and with added colour, among your teenagers and their friends.

If teenagers aren’t interested in getting their sex education from parents or teachers, I’m willing to bet that they’re not going to look for it on websites part-funded by the government, either. That’s why the fuss over the Spunout.ie article on threesomes is misguided.

The Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin first drew attention to the article in a newspaper interview last Sunday, and Minister for Health James Reilly later called on the HSE to review Spun Out, saying it was not an “appropriate use of public money”. I think it’s time we all stopped and drew a deep breath.

The article on the site offered such tips as “Some couples say even one threesome experience injects serious passion into their bedroom shenanigans” and “Don’t pick anyone you have feelings for” for a threesome.

Despite a half-hearted effort to deal with the emotional aspects of threesomes, the tone of the piece was juvenile and silly – I’m certainly not sold on the advisability of urging teenagers to treat their peers as sex objects.

But I’m also pretty sure I read far more explicit, irresponsible things in Cosmopolitan when I was a teenager. I googled “how to have a threesome” this week, and up popped articles from Cosmo, Marie Claire and GQ . None of these publications is Irish or funded by the HSE, but they’re all available here, and are read by teenagers as young as 13.


Pornography
Unfortunately, I suspect teenagers aren’t getting their sex education from Cosmopolitan or GQ , any more than they’re getting it from their parents, their biology teacher or websites such as Spunout.ie.

Instead, they’re getting it – either directly, or indirectly through their friends – from pornography.

As the media was tying itself up in knots over whether teenagers should be told about threesomes, a conference on cyber-bullying was hearing about something arguably far more troubling. Ethel Quayle, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Edinburgh, said there has been “an increase in sexually aggressive behaviour by young people toward other young people”.

Quayle spoke about “sexting”, anything from partial nudity right up to sexual images or video shared in text messages.

According to research carried out last year with 150 British teenagers by Andy Phippen of Plymouth University, sexting is both “mundane” and “prevalent” among 13- and 14-year-olds. They use sexting to decide whether to go out with someone: boys request images; girls supply them. The boys Phippen’s team interviewed saw this as simply “trying their luck”, but said some would “collect these images as trophies”. The girls said some friends regarded it as flattering.

The fallout from this trade in homemade soft porn has, you could argue, already been seen in places such as Steubenville, Ohio, where two teenage football stars were recently found guilty of raping a drunk 16-year-old girl. The boys had texted photos of the unconscious girl during the assaults to their friends.

The case came to worldwide attention because of the willingness of some commentators to blame the victim for what happened, but it was also interesting from another perspective. Would the rape have taken place if the perpetrators hadn’t been so intent on accumulating digital “trophies” – and would they have been caught?

Children are being exposed to porn at much younger ages than ever – as young as 11, according to the EU Kids Online survey. We know, or can guess, that this exposure is shaping their understanding of sexuality in ways that those of us who grew up in the era of a single dog-eared copy of Playboy passed around the schoolyard can’t begin to appreciate.

What lessons might children learn from porn? That sex is fun and nothing to be ashamed of? Perhaps. That ritual humiliation is a normal part of foreplay? Probably. That all women are always ready for sex with any man, regardless of what they say, or how drunk they might be? Almost certainly.

For all the flaws in its approach, Spunout.ie was trying to counter this cavalcade of confusion and misogyny with a more informed perspective. And for that, we should applaud it. And to Mulherin, Reilly and the legions of Liveline callers who worried this week about Spun Out robbing children of their innocence, I would say that there comes a point in every child’s life when trying to prevent them from “knowing stuff” is a bit like trying to stop a tsunami with a sandbag.


joconnell@irishtimes.com, @jenoconnell

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