More and more young people are having sexual relations and at an increasingly young age

TEN YEARS AGO, even in Dublin's rather ratsy version of Bohemia, it wasn't really acceptable to 'sleep around' (that strange euphemism) parrticularly if you were a woman, That's all changed. Virginity, our most previous gift so the nuns told us, is now disspensed with as soon as posssible. As Cass, a nineteen year old, explained: "Like I was quite old really, I was sixteen and I knew all about draw and dope and acid and stuff, but I'd never had sex. All my friends had done it and I felt really naive".

All the pregnancy advice and adopption centres for unmarried mothers agree that there are more pregnancies every year, and that the average age is moving steadily down. Ally, who dealt with 700 pregnant girls last year, say the average is now between 16 and 20. Cherish agree. According to Cherish there were 5,000 pregnancies outside marriage last year; 2,200 of those woman sought abortions. And these figures only represent those who 'get caught'.

As Barbara Mitchell of the Marriage Counselling Service put it, "a change of centuries has been crammed into a decade". The parents, priests and teachhers of todays teenagers were brought up under a strict Catholic coda and a perrvasive petit-bourgeois ethic. The boom of the Sixties, and the so-called Sexual Revolution, imported from America via films, television and magazines, preachhed that you were a drone if you got into work and a fool if you didn't get into sex.

Putting morality aside, the problem now centres around the alteration in practice without any accompanying allteration in ethic. Whatever adults may like to think about, or wish for their kids, the fact is that more and more of them are having sexual relations and at an increasingly younger age.

Yet a tacit conspiracy of silence surrrounds matters sexual. Very few schools have any sex education, even those that do tend to concentrate on the biological end of things, as one 19 year old said, "learning about the reproductive system of the rabbit in fifth year isn't exactly going to help you form decent relationnships".

Geraldine Lawlor, an occupational therapist, who recently got involved in giving talks to schools on relationships through Fr. Tony Baggot S.J. (Director of Marriage Course in CIR), said she "was horrified at the anxiety and connfusion in girls' minds" in a Dublin connvent.Could girls make each other preggnant? Was it normal or sinful to masturrbate? Did red spots on your vagina mean you had syphillis? If you felt tinggly when you kissed a boy did that mean you were pregnant?

It's a subject fraught with embarrasssment for many adults; teachers hope parents will have covered it; parents likewise. Kids are left to battle with the intensely strong feelings associated with puberty while their heads are a mass of confusing mis-information. Meantime Mrs. Lawlor says, "kids are being bommbarded with tantalising glimpses of sex on television and films but being given no help to form a more open and innformed attitude".

The Irish version of Cathoolicism is heavily imbued with puritanism; the body is unnclean, physical appetites somehow yucky. As Fr. Baggott says, "we were all brought up to think that any sexual activity or pleasure unrelated to procreation was a mortal sin". Few parents in Irish homes openly demonnstrate their affection for each other in front of their kids; nakedness is taboo, and the teenagers I spoke to mostly said the only guidance they got from their parents was an embarrassed lecture on periods for the girl, masturbation for the boy.

In one convent where Geraldine Lawlor spoke, a young girl described running home to her mother terrified as she had blood in her knickers. "What's the matter with me," she asked. Her mother said, "you'll get that from now on; and from now on you'll have to be careful with boys."

It's a difficult time to be young. The old Catholic morality has broken down, nothing has yet replaced it. As well as which adults refuse to recognise that the old morality has lost its relevance for young people.

Another difficulty arises because of the strong family tradition in Ireland. The exponents of free sex in America lived in communities and hippie settleements. Here, for a teenager to leave home, as one 23 year old described it, "is like giving your whole family a kick in the teeth". So, the majority of young people live at home, or share a flat in Dublin and go home at the weekends, and lead a double life. Out of 50 teennagers I interviewed, only two said they would discuss their sex life with their parents, others said: "God no! They'd freak out!"; "No way, myoId lady would die"; "Jesus no, my parents would be horrified if they knew what I did".

Sexual encounters then tend to be ramshackle affairs. Again, Cass verrifies this by saying: "It means you go out with a guy and all, but at the end of the night you've nowhere to bloody well go. So how can you get a good thing going? You probably try and find a bed at a party and get in there. It sounds awful when you say it baldly like that, but that's what happens. I think that's where an awful lot of sexual shit comes from. You've no dignity ... "

Peer group pressure to have sexual relations is very strong. The old chesttnut has taken a new twist: God, I thought you were a liberated woman and all! John, a singer in a band, said:

"You go out with a girl, buy her drinks, chat her up. She takes you home, gives you coffee and a good night kiss. Your first thought as you walk home is, "J aysus! What'll I tell the lads in the morning!". Or as Marianne, a friend of his, put it, "we all hopped into fucking without really thinking about it; I mean you're considered a bit weird if you don't go to bed with a guy the first night out". Guys think girls expect it, ditto girls. The difficulty arises when this pressure operates alongside iggnorance and lack of guidance.

Nobody is more shattered than the parents of a girl when she comes home and says she's pregnant. Contrary to the myth, most pregnancies are not the reesult of one night stands but of three or four month relationships at least. For many girls the sexual experience holds very little pleasure. A study done by Dr. Emor Beauman of single women under 25 at the Synge Street Family Planning Clinic showed that only 38% of the women felt they could describe the sexual aspects of their lives as 'very enjoyable" .

The social workers in Cherish, Ally and Dr. Barnardos agreed that a lot of girls go to bed because of peer group pressure, because it's the only way they think they can hang on to their boyyfriends, yet, without really facing up to what they are doing.

Noreen Keane, of Ally, feels a lot of it is "ignorance, it's irresponsibility on a very wide level. They're not being brought up to think what relationships are for, or what human life is about. They know how their bodies work but they just block off on it, they want to hold on to the boyfriend for dear life".

Because young people have not been educated to take responsibility for their' own sexuality, a lot of girls end up gettting pregnant, despite the family plannning clinics. Eileen, who got pregnant when she was 21, said, "you form a kind of block. You don't ever think of it actually happening to you". Laetitia Lefroy of Barnardos thinks the reasons a lot. of girls and boys don't use contraaceptives is because the girls particularly "haven't faced up their own sexuality. Going to the clinics and getting the pill would force them to admit to themmselves what they are actually doing. They say to themselves 'Oh I'm not that kind of girl', and these are girls who've been sleeping with their boyfriends for months!".

There is a certain amount of colllusion between parents and children, the social worker in Cherish feels. Parents close their eyes and are then horrified when their daughter announces she's pregnant. "How could it happen to you, of all people. You must have been drunk", is a typical response. But preggnancy, like death, doesn't recognise social class.

Not that it's all collusion. A young plumber from Finglas was button-holed by his girlfriend's mother who asked, "are you interfering with my daughter'. He admitted he was; "yer very stupid" was her reply, "why haven't you got her on the pill?". Most parents aren't so pragmatic.

One of the few schools that does give full sex education, including discussions and talks about relationships, is Newwpark Comprehensive. It's interesting that a group of 15 and 16 year olds I interviewed there seem to be emerging at the other end of the storm, rejecting 'free sex' and believing very strongly that "people should only go to bed with each other when they really love each other". They tell stories with horrified relish about friends at convents and Christian Brothers where sex education is a sketchy affair hurried over in bioology. class and a picture shown of a boy and girl kissing and a nun saying, "Now that's sin!".

All the young people I spoke to felt very strongly that all schools should be co-educational, as 16 year old David Klassen of Newpark put it, "it's all part of learning to grow up with the opposite sex; I mean if you're not preepared when you're young what the hell are you going to be like later on?".

The number of organisations caterring for the messes caused by our connfused attitude to sexuality do show what a lot of people are like 'later on'. It's hardly surprising given the puritannism, "the big cloud of sin haniging over sexuality" as Tony Baggot puts it, the secrecy and confusion, the single-sex education dominated by clerics, and then the sudden leap into the swinging Pepsi generation where everyybody's doing it and you'll look a fool if you don't grab your courage in both hands and leap in there too.

The central problem seems to be a refusal to face facts on the part of adults.' There's no point in berating young .people for being promiscuous, in refusing to educate them sexually, to be open with them, to deny them access to contraception so they can conduct their relationships with dignity and responsiibility.

Anatole Franc once said, "the hammers that destroyed the temple were forged in the temple.": young people today are the product of the generation that preceeded them; if they reject that generation's morality then it might be more useful to examine why, rather than bawling them out for their behaviour.

As Barbara Mitchell of MCS put it, "it's one of the hardest things to connstruct your own ethical code. In Ireland we're not really trained to do that. There used to be a very strict black and white code, now there aren't any white lines anymore, all the roads are grey". Young people need help and underrstanding in constructing a code for themselves, not a baffled, hurt silence.

One last word. There is much talk these days from the refurbished Minister for Health, Charlie Haughey on the paramount importance of preventative medicine. If the cost were added up in terms of personnel, money, office space, and emotional trauma of all the girls who get pregnant, of the babies who are shovelled off for adoption, of the nummber of abortions, one would think it logical to apply preventative medicine in an area where human life is involved. One step would be the immediate legisslation of contraceptives and a massive education campaign to help people develop r.elationships involving emotions and self-responsibility .•