Our inability to teach basic values is at the heart of the storm over social media abuse

Opinion: Sexual intimacy should be reserved for mature, committed relationships

The Slane concert: there were 750 police present this year, but no matter how well policed or well organised, our societal tolerance for public drunkenness tends to give a free pass to unacceptable behaviour. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

The Slane concert: there were 750 police present this year, but no matter how well policed or well organised, our societal tolerance for public drunkenness tends to give a free pass to unacceptable behaviour. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


In a recent case in Sweden, two teenage girls aged 16 and 17 set up a “slut-shaming” account on Instagram, asking people to nominate the biggest sluts in Gothenburg.

The site caused such anger that a near-riot ensued outside a school where one of the girls who set up the site was allegedly a student. The two girls were charged with aggravated defamation and found guilty. One was sentenced to juvenile detention, and the other got 45 hours’ community service. They were fined 570,000 krona (€65,500), to be divided among their 38 victims. In an interesting twist, the older girl’s mother was made responsible for half of the fine.

Given the furore over the recent Eminem concert, where images of young people engaged in sexual acts went viral, does the Swedish case provide a model for how to deal with such incidents?

If only it were that easy.

Many commentators have noted how differently the young men in the concert incident are being treated in comparison to the young woman.

Apparently, you are still considered to be “legend” if you are male and engaging in a sexual act in public, but will be subject to tirades of abuse if you are female.

However, double standards are not the whole story. Would it improve matters if the girl was being applauded as “legend” too? Obviously, verbal abuse is not appropriate in either case.

Then there is the role of alcohol. The Slane concert had 750 police present, and more than 60 arrests were made, mostly for minor drug offences or for being drunk and disorderly.

‘Under the influence’
But no matter how well-policed or organised events are, Irish people tolerate a level of public drunkenness unthinkable in other societies, and tend to give a free pass to anyone acting “under the influence”.

It is likely alcohol was a feature in this whole mess, and while there have been reports that the young woman’s drink could have been spiked, it is far more likely that our liquid drug of choice, alcohol, on which we spent €6.36 billion last year, played a far bigger role.

No doubt alcohol influenced some who forwarded the controversial images too. But no free pass should be available for that, either.

The internet has magnified everything, including human tendencies to shame and ridicule the behaviour of others. As Una Mullally pointed out in this paper, internet interactions have led to a decrease in empathy. She suggests that the lack of empathy results from the inability to see human cues, such as seeing the distress displayed in facial and body language.

That does not explain how people on the spot reacted to what was going on. My fear is that there is a negative feedback loop, where abusive behaviour online normalises abusive behaviour in person.

In the same way, boundaries have broken down when it comes to sexuality. The prevalence of sexualised imagery, in print but much more so online, has a coarsening and deadening effect.

Unbelievably graphic – and even violent – porn is only a few clicks away from anyone with internet access. The average age of first viewing online pornography is dropping all the time, to the extent that a significant minority of preteens have accessed it, often accidentally.

Has the full significance of uploading sexual images of peers, or even of oneself, been lost as a result? It doesn’t help that the only consensus around the messages we give to young people is tawdry and threadbare: be sure you are ready for sexual activity, don’t get pregnant, don’t get an STI, and don’t upload sexual imagery of yourself or others.

We have succeeded in severing sexual activity almost entirely from commitment. Restraint, respect and love are dismissed with a roll of the eyes as “so 20th century”.

Parents often feel overwhelmed. Some take the path of least resistance, in effect accepting there is no chance that young people can behave any better, which is quite insulting when you think about it.

As a parental stance, it abandons young people in a world where every mistake may be documented, uploaded and permanently displayed. It is a world where wanting to abstain until in a committed relationship is seen as somehow perverse, yet there are still savage punishments for those seen to be promiscuous, especially for girls.

How is a young person supposed to navigate that minefield? Conservative or liberal, no one can believe it is good for young people. In the past, when there were clear boundaries, it was no paradise either, with many people experiencing deep and unnecessary shame concerning normal, healthy sexuality.

Intimacy is special
No one wants a return to that. But a societal consensus that sexual intimacy is something special, something to be reserved for committed, mature relationships, would be a vast improvement on what we have at the moment.

Although I would support greater regulation of the internet, particularly to protect individuals from abuse, we still have to recognise that uploading and sharing highly damaging comments and imagery is only a symptom of a deeper problem.

Our inability as a culture to communicate the vital importance of simple human virtues like kindness and self-control is the real culprit.