Mar 6, 2012

Teenage Kicks

Rachel Lavin

Fumbling a doctored photocopy of my passport and hoping I’ve met the dress code, I adopt an air of cool nonchalance, and mentally reiterate my new date of birth. Approaching the queue, I realise that perhaps this is not the Saturday night I thought it would be.


I find myself outside the infamous Old Wesley Rugby club, one of the most notorious teenage discos in the country, and I’m trying to get in.

The street is abuzz with teenagers, who, not being able to drink inside, have made an opportunity cost assessment in getting as drunk as they can before entering. Groups of young girls emerge skyscraper heels first, followed by long fake-tanned legs and eventually the thin bit of material that serves to cover just enough.

The offloaded vehicles turn and pass by indifferently, I notice the drivers, presumably parents, turning heads away from the rampant sway they have just contributed a son or daughter to.

The bouncer looks me up and down, and checks my falsified piece of paper asks me where I’m from. “Galway’ I announce, cool as a breeze, and noting the unimpressed facial expression, I loudly explain I’m visiting my friend from Blackrock who I went to the Gaeltacht with. He stands aside, letting me pass and I descend down the stairs of the rugby club and into the adolescent abyss.

Stepping into the dated wooden hallway, a crowd of throbbing youths move in unison to the bass thud ejected from the DJ’s box. So this is it, this is Wezz, the adolescent’s paradise. I can’t help feeling a little crestfallen. My teenage disco at home in Leitrim could certainly put this glorified social hall to shame. Ours is a night club designed to match any over-age venue, this run-down hall with tacky valentines decorations streamed across the roof seemed innocent and inconspicuous. But the glory of Wezz is not in its architecture, it’s the social politics, as different schools territorially inhabit different corners of the hall, and attendees size up potential conquests. It’s like Lord of the Flies but with a techno beat.

All through the club I am aware there is a developed systematic understanding of what is expected of one another. Speaking in the smoking area, (a smoking area that the fourteen to sixteen year olds fully avail of under the surveillance of security) one young girl comments, when I ask what is the worst any one has ever gotten thrown out for, that ‘the furthest you can go at Wezz is giving someone head. The bouncers even throw some lads out for fingering’. Does this happen often?’ ‘Oh yeah, everyone gets fingered at Wezz.’

Anne Sexton, sex columnist for Hotpress Magazine, disputes the popular media-justified complaint that ‘parents simply don’t know what’s going on’ in teenage discos.
‘I think there are a lot of parents who are happy to turn a blind eye to what their children are doing. I think people would prefer to turn a blind eye rather than actually discussing it honestly with their children. They’d choose to think it’s not happening and not discuss it out of fear.’

On the glorification of the concept of the ‘shift’, Anne comments ‘What I do think is quite worrying, is that people are not learning about sexual relationships, because it’s drunk and anonymous. Irish people seem to have a difficult bearing of the opposite sex and what they have expectations for, but the expectations are often quite low because there’s a lot of self-loathing going on. There’s an expectation that you might get rejected and I feel quite sorry for young people as they have a lot to deal with.’

There is a given code of conduct which everyone seems to unquestioningly abide to. As Rihanna blares out of the sound system, young girls in bodycon dresses gyrate their hips and throw seductive shapes, puckering their lips and whipping their straightened hair. They seem to see themselves as sexually empowered by this, as they sing along to lyrics such as ‘suck my cockiness, make my persuasion’. The young men approach the girls with an air of macho-ism, standing prostrate, broadening their shoulders and approaching the girls with an air of confidence and dominance, persistently, sometimes forcefully, grabbing at anonymous hips until their choice gives in. Gender roles are enforced by the music issuing from the DJ’s speakers, identity is defined by sexuality, and popularity is sexual confidence.

The whole set up is like a tragic imitation of a pop music video.

But, according to Anne Sexton, this is no coincidence. ‘I think you’ve got a situation where you have young people imitating what they see in mainstream culture from America and the U.K. and obviously in things like pornography and music videos on the one hand and its not backed up by any discussion of sex with their parents. ‘There are very few positive cultural messages, particularly for girls. On the one hand you’ve got this terribly closed off oppressed catholic attitude towards sex but on the other hand you have this pop cultural attitude where you’re supposed to be Rihanna, and dance like a pole dancer. There is no sexual information from the parents, so they are self-informed, but they are self-informed from exterior poor sources.’

From the results of a recent on-campus sample survey of fifty students, for the purpose of this article, there seems to be more of a barrier between Irish parents and their child’s sexuality than a grumpy bouncer and the Old Wesley gates. In a sample survey of fifty students, only 20% reported having learnt about sex directly from their parents, and even within that, only 33% felt sexuality was properly discussed, while 42% expressed parental discourse as mediocre at best. There were indeed several accounts of the cop-out trick of a sex education book strategically placed around the house. 25% admitted that in the home, sex was a topic that simply was not up for discussion.

Sociology Lecturer Craig Considine explains this silence. ‘Now that people are turning away from the Catholic Church, who is the authority on sex? Who has the credibility to advise? There’s a generational gap in sexuality. If the child goes to the parent for advice, all the parent knows is what they learned through the church, and seeing as now the Catholic church are no longer the voice of sexual morality in contemporary Irish culture, parents may not know what to tell their children. They’re avoiding it as they don’t know how to deal with it’.

Not only does the home environment fail to provide a forum for discussion of sex, but students surveyed on a whole felt that both schools and society were uninvolved. 75% thought their school based sex education was mediocre, with 30% only ever given one class on the subject and another 30% believing it came too late. Only 12% felt they were properly educated while 23% received no sex education in their time in secondary school at all. Overall, 72% of students surveyed felt there was a problem with the social discourse surrounding sex in Ireland.

However, a lack of dialogue and guidance has not prevented teenagers from developing their own sub-culture for engaging with sexuality.

Of course, this is not to say, that teenage discos are alone in their confused sexual expression. As club culture evolved and came to dominate the Irish social scene in the 90’s and media becomes more hyper-sexualised as well as accessible, Irish culture is continually being challenged by the hyper-sexualised global trends, clashing with the conservative culture previously dominated by catholic teaching and sexual oppression. A vacuum has opened up on the ground of sexual ethics and teenage discos are merely an attempt to drain that tension.

Anne Sexton elaborates, ‘I think what the big issue with what is happening in teenage discos isn’t a huge amount different to places visited by older people, where you still have the case of people going out getting very drunk and hooking up with members of the opposite sex. I think there’s something deeply wrong. We have a deep issue in this country where people need to get really drunk before they can approach somebody of the opposite sex. There is very little discussion about positive sexuality in our culture. As a people, the Irish nation doesn’t seem to have a very healthy positive self-image.’

Naively relieved at the relative tameness of the night compared to my memories of personal experiences with teenage disco’s, I go to leave but was fooling myself if I thought I was getting away that easy. Passing through the main dancehall I see a girl standing surrounded by a group of young men in the corner. They are videoing her on their mobile phones, as a young man disappears his hand up her skirt from behind as she dances sleepily. Leaving the disturbing situation behind I make my exit onto the street..

Outside, I meet up with my investigative associates, who have struck up a conversation with a girl outside. Her friend is with her in tears as they were not able to get in. We talk and console them as we wait for our lift. They tell us about Wezz and reassure us that ‘we are all having a good time’. Her friend is consistently being pestered by a boy who approaches her on whispering in her ear. On one of these occasions she blurts out ‘I’m not going to have sex with you, I was crying only a minute ago’.

Nearby we witness a young boy casually probing another girl without so much as a word or a kiss. She is uneager to resist but after a minute shyly shrugs him off.

At this point we give up on the lift and call a taxi.

As we leave, the gardai are on the scene and start shepherding groups of drunk youths. Citing section 8 of the criminal act, he merely translates the legislation as “simply get out of my sight, and out of donnybrook. Clear off.’ The defeated stumble away. Parents are arriving now as the disco closes and groups flow out onto the street to collect their children. For those without parents waiting, groups split off in different directions and newly formed couples head in the direction of Herbert Park.

Eventually the youths are cleared away, collected by parents, shooed away by guards and others simply saunter drunkenly into the night.

Putting Wezz behind us, we stop off at the Burlington and within five minutes have wrangled our way into the BESS Ball. It’s at its peak; music is pumping, everyone is tipsy and the place is buzzing.

Perhaps it was sober states, or maybe our cynical attitudes leaving Wezz, but try as we might we can’t ignore the string of paramedics who stream into the back of the ball room and wander through the tables, spoilt for choice and trying to decide which passed out ball attendee they are meant to take to the hospital to get their stomach pumped. Nor can we ignore the puddle of blood on the dancefloor, the couple disappearing under a ballroom table or police removing persistent drunks from the premises.

No no, perhaps we are just being cynical, we quickly take a few drinks and soon realise we are actually all having a good time.

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