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Adolescence is a time that many of us wouldn’t want to return to. Consider the fear of judgement, the insecurity and the relationships that threatened to consume us, whether they eventuated or stayed as a hopeful fantasy.
On the one hand, adolescence is a wonderful time of growth, carefree fun and experimentation, but it has never been easy and is certainly no easier today when we look at a generation overrun with technology and social media, where adolescent boys are turning to pornography as the most common means of sex education, and anxiety and depression are significant public health issues. This is a generation that can easily be called the most vulnerable to date.
Taking a closer look at this developmental stage highlights a few more disturbing realities. A study last year by Dr Melanie Beres from the University of Otago showed some startling results of relationship violence among our New Zealand teens. This issue has been highlighted across the West in numerous studies, showing that this time in a young person’s life is the most likely time for relationship abuses to occur. Dr Beres has highlighted this fact in our own small country, although it is not necessarily surprising given our horrendous domestic violence statistics. If our young people learn from the adults in their world, then New Zealand surely wouldn’t be expected to come out with glowing results, and that is certainly the case.
A third of teens reported being physically harmed and nearly a quarter of all secondary school girls and 9% of secondary school boys reported unwanted sexual behaviour. Emotional and psychological abuses occur at an alarming rate, and often go unreported because of the social framework that enables and celebrates strong gendered behaviours; attitudes about men and women that are constantly forced on young minds via the media. Men who are sexually insatiable and women who are there to please them. Men who control, stalk, intimidate, are possessive and narcissistic, — all in the name of love — (think Twilight) and the sweet girls who see their role as pleasers and gatekeepers of male behaviour and sexual desire. All of these issues are also present in the LGBTQI community, and present the same concerns.
Pornography and the effect it is having on our young people and their relationships cannot be ignored. Given the average age for a boy to first view porn is 13, and that a 2017 Australian study showed 47% of 15 to 19-year-old males watch porn daily and a further 27% watch it weekly, the content of mainstream pornography has to be kept in the forefront of our minds.
It is not sex we’re talking about. It is now almost entirely focused on violence towards and degradation and humiliation of women. The question for all parents must be "how do we counteract the loud and forceful voice of the pornography industry"? Because one thing is for certain — if we don’t make a very real effort to show our young people what good relationships look like, discuss with them the elements of a positive sexual relationship and talk about consent, respect and basic human kindness and empathy, then rest assured the pornography industry will happily give them a very skewed version.
The porn epidemic is selling our young people a lie, by eroticising aggression and degradation and hard-wiring our young men to find violence against women sexy. Interpersonal violence in all its forms increases the risk for anxiety and depression, and the associated behaviours that come with these emotional states. We have to remember to see these as a symptom of the unhealthy relationship, rather than as a failing of the individual.
Supporting and validating our young people’s experiences is a significant step in helping them feel empowered, rather than further perpetuating the feeling of blame that often comes when a relationship is abusive in some way. Many of our young people are missing out on the opportunity to have a safe, mutually enjoyable experience because of the natural desire they have to do what they think they ought to — young men just want to be the right kind of man. The kind that is celebrated by their peer group. They want to have the right kind of sex and do the things that real men do. Young women want to be seen for who they are, be part of a mutually loving relationship, feel safe to say "yes" knowing that communication will take place to ensure a positive outcome, or say "no" and have that choice respected.
Our job is to make sure that they all feel capable and empowered when it comes to knowing what good relationships and good sexual relationships look like. The reality is that most young people caught in a negative situation will find it difficult to know how to get themselves out of it. Let’s face it, it’s a really tough thing for adults to do. But friends can be literal life-savers at times like these, as it’s often the friend who knows that something isn’t right and is the one to get help.
A bystander who can identify what’s not OK and can help by noticing, validating and supporting the young person to get the assistance they need. What is needed is a community approach, through schools, homes, sports clubs and cultural groups, where people look out for each other and the adults lead by example.
Adolescence is a time of great promise and we owe it to young people to show them how good their relationships can be, not let them wallow in the dregs of what the internet has to offer. Surely if we all work on this together, we can make a difference.
- Marcelle Nader-Turner is a St Hilda’s Collegiate counsellor and is also in private practice.
Where to get help
• It’s Not OK website www.areyouok.org.nz
• The school counsellor
• The "Loves me not" programme run in high schools
• Family harm team at the Dunedin police — not necessarily for prosecution, but to help with accessing agencies and advice
• Women’s Refuge
• Oranga Tamariki
• Anglican Family care
• Police Victim Support