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Column: Sex? No thanks, we’re Irish

Irish attitudes to sex have come a long way since the dark old days – but we’re still not quite there, writes Beth Wallace, the organiser of Ireland’s first sex festival.

Beth Wallace

MAJOR AND RELATIVELY rapid change has swept Irish legislation, and consequently societal norms, in terms of the intimate relationships of those of us on this island within the last generation.

We saw the introduction of divorce in 1995, civil partnership, notably including same sex partnerships, in 2011, the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, as well as freer access to contraception, and other sexual health services.
Recently I relayed to an, incredulous, American friend that one had to be married in Ireland to have legal access to condoms up until 30 or so years ago, and not only that but that one had to be prescribed them by one’s GP – she was speechless, rightly so. Let’s not forget that it’s also within the last 30 years that broadcaster Gay Byrne received death threats for demonstrating the correct way to use a condom in a Late Late Show about AIDS. This, and incidents like it, were shocking at the time, the stuff of patronising pontification from the pulpits, possible outrage down the pub on a Friday night or perhaps embarrassed, and therefore, hushed disapproval, around the dinner table.

The shape of visible, predominant, Irish society up until the 1990s was by and large made up of heterosexual, married couples, usually with several children. Any family or relationship structure outside this norm produced raised eyebrows, nudges and winks – but generally not open, honest and frank discussion. Therefore it remained invisible from the mainstream. The idea that one could be in a same-sex relationship, or perhaps choose not to marry, was considered strange.

Marriage as we’re familiar with it is on the decline in most western cultures, including Ireland, as people move away from the membership of and participation in, the Christian churches, and are legislatively freer to choose alternative family and relationship structures while still maintaining legal partnerships for the purposes of raising children etc. Social sanction is now rare in terms of divorce; it’s common for adults in their 30s, 40s and upwards to be separated or divorced and when dating in this age group to be entering into a second, third or more, long term relationship, perhaps with children from two or more of those relationships.

When people are given freedom to choose, they will take it as their right

The Irish people voted to introduce divorce, and civil partnerships could be registered with the state from January 1 2011. Both of these have given state recognition, therefore societal acceptance, to the fact that relationships and marriages end, and that not all relationships are heterosexual in nature. When people are given freedom to choose what suits them most, they will take it, as is their right.

The issue of sexual abuse is one that has been pervasive in our collective cultural experience in Ireland – yes, it can be a difficult issue to discuss and face up to individually, in families, communities, institutions and as a nation. As a survivor, I’m intimately familiar with how difficult it has the potential to be. However, I believe it has also resulted in more open and frank discussion of all matters sexual. A consequence of ‘abuse’ is that it may require healing, and this is what is unique about the approach being taken by Bliss Festival. Practitioners are working in Ireland, with mind, body and spirit, with the goal of ‘sexual healing’, and the event is designed to give voice to some of these practitioners.

The early 1980s saw the dawning of a new sexual age, one that had not had such a devastating impact globally ever before, as HIV and AIDS entered the collective consciousness and reality. Media campaigns touting the value of condom use, as well as no small amount of fear-mongering, were pervasive – those over a certain age will remember the tombstone imagery of the (unhelpful to those affected) advertising campaigns of the time.

However, irrespective of any negative impacts, temporary or lasting, resulting from the media campaigns at the time, the arrival of HIV and AIDS resulted in sex being a potentially lifesaving topic of discussion in schools, workplaces and homes. The Relationships and Sexuality Education programmes instituted by the Department of Education, organisations such as one I spent nearly a decade working for, Dublin AIDS Alliance, all emerged to bring the complex issues of sex, sexuality and relationships out into public fora, onto the streets, into TV programmes, schools, communities, wherever the message would be heard is where it was spoken – it’s time to talk about sex to save lives!

If someone chooses to build a dungeon full of bondage equipment, what business is it of mine?

Perhaps a consequence of this has been a lingering, and progressively more liberal, approach and attitude towards sex and sexuality in Ireland. I certainly see the correlation over the 25 years I’ve been working with this issue.

There is access to professional sexual health services, organisations with a long history of activism and service provision. Those such as the Irish Family Planning Association are providing a full range of state of the art medical, support, education and advocacy services. However, many of those services are limited to large urban centres – for example, how does a young person living in an isolated rural area access emergency contraception? Will she feel secure in the knowledge that her GP will actually provide it? Unfortunately, this may not be guaranteed.

What of women who wish to terminate their pregnancy? Ireland has, again and again, been found to be legislatively lacking in its responsibility and its duty of care to its daughters by exporting the ‘problem’ to other European countries, continuing to inflict distress upon women choosing abortion.

Ireland, let’s be mature about this. Thousands of Irish women seek each year to terminate their pregnancies in other countries because they cannot do so here. Let’s look after our own mothers, sisters, daughters and friends instead of putting them through the trauma of having to travel to another jurisdiction for a medical service that they choose to have performed on their own bodies.

Full equality is still not an option for all relationships. Those in same sex partnerships do not experience the full benefits of equality that their counterparts in opposite sex relationship enjoy from the state. Ireland, our citizens are equal to each other in every way irrespective of relationship choices or sexual orientation. Let’s grow up here!

I wonder why anyone thinks that the sex life of others is any of their business? If someone has sex or relationships with several people at once, what difference does it make to me? None, unless I’m one of those people. If someone chooses to build a dungeon filled with bondage equipment in their basement, what business is it of mine? None, unless I choose to go down there. What consenting adults engage in sexually, in the privacy of their own spaces, is no business of anyone else, or the state.

When Ireland both legislatively and culturally comes to a point where we allow each other the complete freedom to do what we wish with our own bodies, then Ireland will have reached its sexual maturity. I, for one, am glad that we appear to be getting there.

Beth Wallace is the organiser of the first ever Bliss Festival, which takes place in Dublin’s city centre on Saturday February 25 from 12 noon to 11pm. Tickets are €55 and €75 and are available through the website

More: Let’s talk about sex: Ireland’s first sex festival to be held in February>

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Beth Wallace

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