On the wall behind Deirdre Seery’s desk hang two beautiful ceramic plaques.
The pieces, she explains, were donated in the 1990s by a local artist, to what was then the Cork AIDS Alliance, for display at a ‘safe’ house in the Cork suburb of Bishopstown.
In this house, a succession of young male AIDS victims lay dying.
Ostracised by a society which didn’t talk about the heavily stigmatised issues of gay sex and HIV/AIDs, the men were visited in secret at this house, and another, by family members too ashamed to care for them at home.
They were looked after by a Public Health Nurse, while general care was provided by the staff of what is now the Sexual Health Centre, of which Deirdre Seery is the CEO.
“We provided 24-hour non-medical care in two rented houses where these people were dying, and we looked after them along with the public health nurse,” Seery recalls.
There were no hospice facilities at the time for people dying of AIDS, she says, so over time two houses were rented, one in Bishopstown, the other in Rochestown, to shelter the men.
“The silence around AIDS was deafening,” Seery recalls.
“Back then people didn’t talk about sex. They didn’t have a language to talk about sex.”
Deirdre Seery arrived at the centre 27 years ago around the time the AIDS crisis was emerging – and in an Ireland which was a very different place to today; condoms, the primary protection against the disease, had only recently been made available over the counter without prescription, homosexual acts were illegal and there was enormous stigma around being gay at the very time the AIDS crisis was reaching its zenith.
In contrast, this year, as the Sexual Health Centre celebrates its 30th anniversary, it will hand out more than 15,000 free condoms and provide a wide range of sexual health services which include the provision of free HIV testing in pubs and talks to schoolchildren about everything from sexting to oral sex.
These days, teenagers – some as young as 13, though mostly they’re over age of 16 - think nothing of walking into the Sexual Health Centre to get information on everything from STIs to how to don a condom.
Downstairs from Seery’s office is the centre’s cheery main reception, which features a fish tank and lots of bright paint - plus a semi-partitioned area which holds a discreet cabinet containing condoms, a contraceptive kit, a dildo and information brochures.
In an age where children in primary school are sexting, where by 14 many teens are familiar with graphic porn, and where the incidence of sexually transmitted infections is spiralling, particularly in the teenage and twenty-something age groups, when teenagers call to the centre, their questions are taken seriously.
“They come in and ask for free condoms. We don’t turn them away because we see it as an opportunity to talk to them about the age of consent and about what they are doing – whether they are comfortable doing it and who they are doing it with,” Seery explains.
When a young person arrives, he or she will meet a sexual health worker who can offer advice on issues ranging from how to use a condom to information about sexual health and the legal age for sex.
The centre, which provides everything from out-of-hours STI testing and school visits to counselling for unplanned pregnancy, abortion and HIV, has eight fulltime staff, two part-time counsellors and six community employment workers who accompany the sexual health workers on their field-work and provide administrative support.
It is almost totally funded by the HSE, though it also receives funding under the Department of Child and Youth Affairs
Generally young people today have a healthily open attitude to sex says Seery: “They don’t have the same anxieties and they often have the language to express themselves and are open to learning.”
The downside of today’s openness about sex, is that when children and young people begin to become curious about sexuality, they tend to source information through pornography, using their smartphones and computers.
Parents have no control over or, in many cases, much, if any knowledge of the kind of material their children are accessing – and it’s often hard porn, which can leave children and teenagers with very distorted ideas about sex, relationships and even the human body: “Young people often don’t know that people have pubic hair - when they get pubic hair they think there’s something wrong with them,” Seery remarks.
The unreal images of beautifully sculpted physiques, either from internet porn or though social media of various kinds, can also result in poor body image, Seery warns: “Porn stars tend to have boob enhancements and the sex that is portrayed is not real sex.
“There’s no relationship context and the sex can be quite aggressive and involve both multiple partners, and very unusual positions which can hurt people.”
This creates a set of unrealistic norms around sex, she says – and the results are showing up in even quite young children.
Emma Coughlan, one of the centre’s sexual health workers, reports that the kind of information she’s now providing during her primary school visits has changed drastically in the space of just a few years: “Primary school children are more grown up now and more knowledgeable. They are more sexualised now than they would have been even five years ago,” she says, adding that increasingly, teachers are requesting discussions with sixth class pupils around the issue of ‘shifting’ or ‘meeting’ (kissing).
Children are telling each other, she reports, that by the time they leave sixth class, girls must have ‘shifted’ up to six guys in one go or expect to be bullied about their naivety at second level.
“We’re having to do a lot more internet safety talks. Even at primary level they’re sexting pictures of themselves naked to each other,” she explains.
“Five years ago we would have been talking about bodily changes that they should expect, but now schools are a lot more concerned about the internet side of things.”
Centre workers annually visit 56 schools, a mix of primary and second-level in Cork city and county – and says Seery, the centre receives an ever-increasing number of requests from concerned teachers and school principals.
By second year of second-level education the influence of social media and porn on teenagers is blatant, Emma observes.
“It’s changing their views on relationships. There’s an expectation that girls will act like porn stars and pleasure the boys.”
Oral sex is now viewed almost as casually as kissing, she says, adding that she constantly struggles to get the message across to girls that they don’t actually have to behave like porn stars.
“From what I see, boys seem to access porn more than girls and they pass on these expectations.
“Girls don’t seem to focus on their own pleasure – there’s an attitude that sex is a kind of service they provide to boys.”
There’s downward pressure from the porn industry on boys too, Seery adds: “It puts a pressure on boys to be high performers and the majority of young men are not up to this – second level boys feel there is an expectation that if they were to have sex they should be stud machines. They increasingly feel they’re being pressured to perform sexually.”
Teenagers bring these early perceptions with them as they grow older, with the result that relationships are changing she observes — sexual intercourse tends to happen earlier in a relationship now, than it would have previously, she says, though she points out: “There’s nothing wrong with respectful consensual sex.”
However, she warns, there is a pressure to have casual sex and there can be a “vagueness” around what constitutes consensual sex.
“Peoples’ expectations have changed. There’s more of an expectation of casual sex. Things can go from flirtation to sexual intercourse much faster, which means people can think the other person is consenting to something that he or she has not consented to.”
As a result, Seery believes, the issue of consent is now more important and more complex than ever.
“Our new social norms in some ways are a liberation for people in the expression of sexuality but they are also creating expectations that people will live a more promiscuous lifestyle than they actually want to choose for themselves.
“It is all about choice and your ability to state what you want.”