Sex is just one of the subjects I address in my new book Your Place or Mine? Community and Belonging in 21st Century Ireland. Along with other aspects of our identities, like ethnicity and nationality, it forms part of the tapestry of ourselves, constantly changing throughout our lives.
Throughout the 20th century, the Catholic Church dominated Irish cultural life. It was obsessed with controlling sexual behaviour. Sex was for procreation only, to produce the next generation of believers. The idea that it could be a source of pleasure or fun was repressed and condemned. Sex was equated with sin and sin equated with sex. Morality related solely to the region below the belt.
Despite the Church’s apparent concern with the moral fibre of its flock, we now know that hypocrisy and secrecy were the order of the day. The Church’s house of cards has come tumbling down. Certain place names — Letterfrack, Artane, Goldenbridge — now send a shiver down our spines. As sociologist Tom Inglis reminds us, “some of them [priests and bishops] were having sex and children while others were having sex with children”. Even those who were not doing it themselves almost certainly knew that others were and did nothing to expose it.
Despite the Church’s dominance, it would be far too simplistic to assume that people necessarily always followed their rules. Of course not. Once young people are driven by their hormones to get their hands on each other, they will do it — no matter what. Sex is an immensely powerful force.
As historian Diarmuid Ferriter says in his encyclopaedic study, Occasions of Sin: “During a century where there was an avowedly Catholic ethos, oppression and watchfulness, there was also no shortage of clandestine and illicit sexual behaviour.” Historians have found, for example, that many thousands of Irish women worked as prostitutes between 1800 and 1940. So no society has just one set of characteristics — like traditional, Catholic and repressive — at a time; there is always a challenge, defiance and resistance by some members of society.
What do we know about people’s actual sexual practices in 21st century Ireland? Not much. It is not a subject with which many social researchers wish to get down and dirty. However, the Durex Global Sex Survey was conducted in 2005. They interviewed 317,000 people from 41 countries, including Ireland. The following are some of its findings:
* The average age when Irish people first had sex was 17.3 years, which was concurrent with the global average. The youngest age was in Iceland (15.6 years) and the oldest was India (19.8 years).
* The average number of sexual partners in Ireland was 11.1, whereas the highest was in Turkey (14.5). The lowest number was in India (3), and the global average was 9.
* rish people have sex on average 97 times a year, close to the global average of 103 times. The Greeks do it the most, at 138 times, and the Japanese do it the least, at 45 times.
* 58% of Irish people have had unprotected sex, compared to the global average of 47%.
* 12% of Irish people have had an extra marital affair; 62% have had a one night stand; and 20% have had a gay experience.
All of this sexual activity is hard work. While there has always been more pressure on women than on men to look sexually attractive, there is inordinate pressure on young women these days.
The ‘freedom’ to express one’s sexuality openly comes at a price, both metaphorically and literally.
The standard expectations for young women nowadays are heavily determined by “because you’re worth it” consumerism and dumbed-down celebrity culture, and it takes courage to resist this. They have to be unnaturally thin (or at least feeling eternally guilty if they are not), coated in fake tan, impeccably made up, waxed to within an inch of their lives and wearing extraordinarily high heels. When they walk in these heels, they often look a bit like a newborn giraffe taking its first steps, weak and helpless. It might be boring, but I just like to be able to run if I need to, especially late at night!
Looking like this, in the style of ‘pole-dancer chic’, is not instead of being smart — women still have to be smarter than men to get promoted because of their possession of that pesky piece of kit called a womb. And I suspect that the sexual game is still not a level playing field for young women and men — girls are still called ‘sluts’ if they behave promiscuously, whereas boys are accorded much more social and sexual freedom.
Irish society has become much more sexually liberal since the 1990s. Sexual imagery is everywhere, hard porn is available on the internet 24/7, condoms are more publicly displayed than cigarettes in supermarkets, and some would say we have reached a kind of sexual ‘end of history’. While it is still by no means a free-for-all, more sexual kit is certainly for sale — boosted recently by Fifty Shades of Grey! So we went from banning Ulysses and The Tailor and Ansty to Ann Summers stores and lap-dancing clubs on our high streets in a fairly short space of time. Homosexuality was legalised in 1993, a form of civil partnership is now possible for gay people, but we still have some way to go on achieving women’s right to choose regarding abortion. Conservative forces still succeed in maintaining women’s status as second-class citizens on that issue.
There is still relatively little open, mature discussion of sexual matters in Irish society, indicating an ongoing tension between traditional and liberal attitudes. It is more often pathologised in terms of the ‘problems’ of promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, fertility problems or erectile dysfunction, than celebrated as an important, and potentially even fabulous and liberating, part of a healthy person’s everyday life.
* Ethel Crowley is a sociologist and author. Her new book, Your Place or Mine? Community and Belonging in 21st Century Ireland (Dublin, Orpen Press) is out now.