Sex is one of the most powerful forces in our lives but we’re often too embarrassed to discuss it. Sharon Ní Chonchúir talks to Dr Pixie McKenna about her new TV series.
DR Pixie McKenna wants to get Ireland talking about sex.
Last Tuesday, the first episode of Pixie’s Sex Clinic screened on RTÉ and, before it aired, Pixie was anxious about what the reaction would be.
“I’m excited and apprehensive,” she said.
“I’m wondering what people are going to think.”
Originally from Cork, Dr Pixie has spent the past decade combining her work as a practicing doctor with a career in the media.
She is best known as a co-presenter of Chanel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, a show which discusses conditions people are too shy to share with their doctors.
In some ways, Pixie’s Sex Clinic follows on from this.
“I’ve got patients in their 50s who don’t have a clue about sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), who’ve never resolved their sexual hang-ups or who are worried about certain aspects of their sex lives,” says Dr Pixie.
“They’re embarrassed to talk about such things. If these adults haven’t got it figured out, I started to wonder about young people. How are they negotiating their sexual relationships?
"I wanted to start a conversation, to take the sexual pulse of the nation and to show viewers — especially parents — just what’s going on.”
She was curious to see how much things had changed since she was a teenager.
“Things were different in the 1980s,” she laughs.
“I went to a convent school and there was one girl in the whole school who had had sex.
"In fact, my first encounter with a penis was when I dissected one as a medical student in UCC. Imagine that: my first penis was a dead one!”
Today’s teenagers live in a different world, a world where Miley Cyrus blurs the lines, where the internet offers easy access to porn and where the implied message is that everyone — except, perhaps, you — is having sex.
“I’d hate to be a teenager today and I’d be terrified if I had a teenage son or daughter,” says Dr Pixie.
“My daughter is three now and I worry about what things will be like when she’s older.”
The statistics back Pixie up.
According to the Voice of Young People Report on Attitudes to Sexual Health published by Pfizer Healthcare Ireland in 2010, the majority of young people first have sex between the ages of 16 and 17.
However, this doesn’t mean that they are as informed about it as they should be.
The latest statistics from the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre show that there were 12,626 notifications of STIs in Ireland in 2014.
Young people aged between 15 and 24 accounted for 39% of those cases.
The Voice of Young People Report found that young people had a high level of awareness of STIs but a low level of knowledge about them.
In fact, their main concern was the social embarrassment an STI would cause if their friends found out about it.
Because of this, almost all of those interviewed said that they wouldn’t tell anyone if they got an STI, not even the person from whom they contracted it.
Dr Aisling Loy, a consultant in sexual health at the Guide Clinic in St James’s Hospital, Dublin, sees the consequences of these attitudes in her work every day.
“Just this morning, I saw young people with everything from primary syphilis to genital warts,” she says.
She also sees a huge difference between Irish young people and young people from other countries.
“The contrast is most obvious with Brazilians,” she says.
“They come in every year for their sexual health screen. Very few Irish people do that.
"They wait until they have symptoms, not realising that many STIs don’t have symptoms, or that symptoms can lie dormant for years.
"This means there’s a whole pool of undiagnosed people out there who are risking infertility and passing on infections without realising it.”
The stigma surrounding STIs is the reason we don’t come forward, according to Dr Loy.
“We’re decades behind when it comes to talking about sex and STIs,” she says.
“In other countries, it’s seen as shameful not to go to an STI clinic for your regular check-up but here it’s seen as an indication that you are promiscuous rather than someone who is merely sexually active.”
Our lack of education is another big factor.
“Most people don’t have a clue,” she says.
“Young people rely on Google and come to see me after having self-diagnosed themselves with something terrible.
"I often get a hug as they leave because they are so relieved to have been told they have something like thrush when they thought they had AIDS.
"It’s amazing how much bad information there is out there and how young people always seem to find it.”
Pixie got a flavour of just how confused today’s young people are during the filming of her show.
“There are horrendous gaps in their knowledge,” she says.
The internet and technology is a particular cause for concern.
“The information they find online is not always right,” she says.
“I heard from teenagers who worried about whether their genitals were normal.
"That’s a common worry when you’re young but these teenagers had compared their genitals with those of porn stars online and were worried that theirs looked nothing like them.
"They don’t realise that they’re not the abnormal ones. It’s the porn stars who deviate from the norm.”
Very few of these issues are being discussed in sex education classes at school.
The Voice of Young People report found that for the majority of young people, school-based education was too little, too late.
Not enough time was allowed for it, and the teachers who taught it were often not properly trained to do so.
Most said that the emphasis was entirely on preventing pregnancy, with very little mention made of STIs.
“I’m not so sure sex education has moved on that much from my day,” says Dr Pixie.
“The message back then was: don’t get pregnant or you’re dead. It sounds as though it’s pretty much the same today.”
The young people she spoke to for her programme told her that the teachers in charge of sex education at school were often uncomfortable talking about it.
“The kids would end up laughing at the teacher’s embarrassment,” says Pixie.
“It’s no wonder they end up with such little understanding if that’s how adults go about telling them about sex.”
Both Dr Pixie and Dr Loy want to see a core sex education curriculum in schools, with a trained teacher dedicated to teaching it.
They would also like for society in general to face up to the issues young people today are dealing with.
“There’s such a mismatch between young people’s sense of liberation in hooking up with people on Tinder and not having the maturity or sense of responsibility to look after their sexual health and wellbeing,” says Dr Loy.
“But you can’t blame them. We aren’t teaching them enough about this at school and we don’t talk about it as a society. It’s no wonder they don’t have a notion.”
Dr Pixie wants to communicate a simpler message about sex.
“I’d love for young people to realise that their sexual career is a marathon and not a sprint,” she says.
“Teenagers are so desperate to get to the finish line and have sex but they need to be told that they shouldn’t feel they have to rush into anything. Sex is something we should all take the time to explore and enjoy.”
She hopes her TV show will kick-start a much-needed conversation.
“The series is funny and entertaining but, most of all, it’s educational,” she says.
“It’s for everyone and I’d like for it to get everyone talking. These conversations are crucial and they’re long overdue.”
PIxie’s Sex Clinic, RTE2, Tuesdays, 9.55pm.
Sex education should be introduced at an earlier stage
Ruth Carey is 20 years old and from Killarney.
“I actually got most of my sex education from my fourth class teacher,” she says.
“She caught us giggling when we looked the word ‘sex’ up in the dictionary one day.
"She proceeded to inform us what a ‘wonderful’ thing sex was and to explain in child-friendly terms what it was all about.
I think we all thought she was crazy and we laughed even harder.”
She has more graphic memories of sex education in secondary school.
“We liked to call one of the STI pictures ‘cauliflower dick’,” she laughs.
“We also had two ladies who came in with condoms and bananas and these glasses which made you see as you would see if you were drunk to show you how difficult putting the condom on can be.”
While she found these classes informative, she thinks they came too late.
“We got them in sixth year and I know that the legal age of consent is 17 but whether it’s the law or not, people have sex under the legal age so I think sex education should be introduced at an earlier stage.”
She does remember worrying about sex.
“Before I became sexually active, I was terrified about how to do it,” she says.
“It all seemed so complicated. In the end, my first attempt wasn’t good.
"I was so confused by the position the guy was trying to put me in that he just gave up!”
Things have changed now that she is in a long-term relationship.
“I’ve learned a lot and I would say I’m pretty OK at it,” she says.
“We do our own thing and enjoy it thoroughly!”
Porn doesn’t bother Ruth much either.
“I feel people who are disappointed that real-life sex isn’t like porn need a mental check,” she says.
“It’s like asking why real life isn’t like it is in superhero movies!”
However, she does think she’d worry about STIs if she were single.
“There is a stigma about them,” she says.
“I remember my friend contracted one and was so upset about it. She didn’t tell us for so long.
"She thought we wouldn’t want to be associated with her. It was as though she had the plague!”
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