Attitudes towards intimacy have changed utterly in the past few decades in Ireland.looks at how sex education is important for adults at all stages of life.
AT THE height of lockdown, there was a global surge in online porn use.
In Ireland, there was an online surge of a different kind as hundreds of women and couples started taking part in “orgasm workshops”.
On the surface, one could say the surge was caused by obvious things such as boredom or couples suddenly spending far more time together.
However, if you talk to some of the people working in sexuality in Ireland, the reasons run far deeper.
Psychotherapist Beth Wallace, who offers online therapy for individuals and couples focusing on intimacy in adult relationships, had her busiest 12 months.
“I've been busier in 2020 than any other year in my 10 years of self employment, part of that is lockdown-related, as people have been given the opportunity to examine relationships, or it illuminated problems or challenges,” says Beth.
Máire Ní G, who now runs her “feminine sexuality alchemy” course online, thanks to Covid, a course that covers sexual trauma, the nervous system and orgasm, saw a 75% increase in business in 2020.
She has been running her course, in-person, for six years now.
Similarly Kitty Maguire, who runs trainings in menstrual cycle awareness and the female reproductive system has seen demand for her work soar in the pandemic too.
“I’m at least five years working in this area, and I’d be lucky to get 11 people in a room two years ago doing this menstruation work, and I was promoting them to the bitter end. Now I’ve 70 people on a course at a time,” says Kitty.
And Carol McInerney, an accredited counsellor and movement therapist, who runs a course working with sexual cycles of female bodies, saw a rise in demand for her work too.
She wrote an article about the course five years ago that received little response, but she has seen interest in her work grow significantly in the last year.
“My work translated well online. I saw more and more people doing deeper and deeper work, we were ushered right into our shadows, and there were parts of us waiting to be claimed, as well as parts waiting to be released,” says Carol.
“I see more and more women really willing to step in to the uncomfortable stuff brought on by a desire to feel alive in the body and to have their body as an all."
While people might have jumped on a Zoom call about orgasms in lockdown, spurred on by a post they saw on Instagram, the therapist believes the surge towards sexual healing has been caused by major cultural, legal and political shifts in Irish society.
“It's taken massive reveals around trauma, like mother and baby homes, Repeal and Tuam to reveal what we are sitting on us - the lid has been lifted,” says Carol.
Caelainn Hogan, a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, as well as in New Statesman and The Guardian published a book on this very issue in 2019 - 'Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland's Institutions for 'Fallen Women'.' The book was even read and endorsed by 'The Handmaid’s Tale' author Margaret Atwood.
Caelainn says the marriage equality referendum of 2015, and the repealing of the Eighth Amendment in 2018, combined to create profound change in Irish life.
“That [marriage equality] brought about people speaking about experiences that were undermined as families, and looking ahead to Repeal - a lot of silences were being broken. There were stories of people who had to travel abroad to access reproductive healthcare, stories of women who felt criminalised. And before that was the year of Tuam, where it was discovered that significant human remains were buried in sewage chambers,” says Caelainn.
It is these breaking of silences that have led people to log online and learn about female sexuality and orgasms, believes Kitty.
“People are absolutely ready to heal, they want to be facilitators of social and legal change. So many people have found their voice and that shame seal has been broken, I don’t think people realised what we were holding,” she says.
Where we once saw our sexuality as “dirty”, that belief is slowly shifting.
“The history of Ireland has absolutely affected our sexuality and that’s why women fought so hard for Repeal. We had mothers, sisters and aunts who were affected by the mother and babies home, we had the Tuam babies, the Kerry babies and so many cases of women being treated like a low grade animal,” says Kitty.
With two society-changing referenda and massive reveals around trauma and shame, the culture was primed for change and then a global pandemic hit, leaving many people with little to do and nowhere to go.
“With the pandemic a lot of women began contacting me, when everything went very still. There was nowhere to run or hide and if there was something lying dormant that needed to be addressed, resolved or healed, this was coming to the fore for them. They were things they could no longer ignore,” says Máire, who took her female sexuality course online in November after the surge in interest.
She states that time was also a factor, with women usually being “really, really busy” both working in and out of the home. That busyness or stress is what has been scientifically shown to “inhibit women’s libido”.
But much like the way the sudden surge in interest in orgasm during the pandemic was not just linked to boredom, sex is also not just about sex.
“Sexual energy is the closest energy to the core of who we are, it is quite literally life force and creativity. It permeates everything - vitality and joy. It is creation itself,” says Carol.
So when it has been heavily controlled by church and State, through shame, the need for, and drive towards, healing was inevitable.
Sarah Sproule is a sex educator with an MA in sexuality studies from DCU, and a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.
She works with parents, teachers and young people, and even goes into 5th and 6th class students, nationwide, to teach about sexuality and relationships.
From her first hand experience, talking about sex, bodies and intimacy comes down to our nervous system first and foremost.
“When it comes to talking to our children about bodies, intimacy and sex, accessing and sharing the right information is not the most difficult thing for parents in my experience.
“The most difficult thing is to learn to manage your nervous system which has been shaped by the culture that you have grown up in, and it's probably a sex negative culture. That culture considered things to do with sex to be bad, scary, dangerous or wrong,” says Sarah.
“We are also learning specific communication skills and teaching our children communicating skills about how we interact with others with different needs."
Sarah says she is witnessing cultural change because of the work happening in families.
Wider culture aside, it is culture-setting in your own home that provides the bedrock for difficult conversations around rape, abortion, porn and abuse, later down the line.
“The best way is to help an adult to create a culture where conversations about sex, bodies and intimacy happen is to have these chats become part of the everyday culture of the family. It is a radical act of courageous brave parenting."
She states that this learning is complicated for parents and guardians. However, she is seeing a generation of caring adults who have said: 'Stop. This far and no further, this cycle ends with me and I am going to do the work necessary so my child has access to an adult who understands that accurate information around bodies'.
How did this shame get embedded into our culture?
It is not just obvious things like church and State behaviour around contraception, reproductive rights and the imprisoning of pregnant women.
The culture of shame is passed down through families, accidentally and unknowingly.
“Our nervous system learns very quickly and that is why shame around sex and our bodies and intimacy can be so easily passed along. Our nervous system will say: 'don't talk about that again'. The adults around us might have given us the impression that what we said wasn't right without even realising it,” explains Sarah.
And just how do stop this cycle of shame being perpetuated?
“We need to be super kind to ourselves as parents because there are probably generations of our families who, to keep themselves safe and to keep the children they were raising safe, didn't have open conversations about sex, so we are undoing something that is very long standing.
“It's important to find a guide, find support, take a course, or listen to a podcast about these issues. You need to kindly surround yourself with resources, that's the important first step,” Sarah adds.
And while it is important to be able to talk to our young people about serious issues such as abuse and porn, it is equally important to talk to them about pleasure, if we want to stop the cycle of shame in its path.
“When it comes to talking about pleasure - we are setting our child up to understand that this part of the body is a neutral thing, not only a place where things can go badly wrong. And when talking to young adults, setting the scene for the everyday conversations, not focusing on all the negativity and bad things that can happen, is important.
“Sometimes I use the analogy of learning to drive and teaching your child to drive. If you spend years talking about car accidents and car crashes and spinal cord injury, there's a whole lifetime of our kids hearing about collisions and then once they're in the car their whole nervous system is scared to drive. It does not make good educational sense to focus on the negatives,” says Sarah.
The work comes down to giving our children permission, both explicit and implicit, to talk about the body, the way you would talk about anything else with your child.
“It's all about setting the habits of having these conversations, going to the supermarket and pointing out the products, talking to an aunty about her menstrual cup, cultivating a culture of openness because young people are more likely to suffer in silence than speak up to ask for help,” says Sarah.
While there might be “gremlins” inside of us that say “do not talk about this stuff”, not talking about it will not create a safer world for our children.
“We want to send a child out into the world who knows what their body is like, can speak up for their needs, listen to different needs that other people have, and to make the world a sounder and better place by their ability to negotiate consent and relationship skills.
“It is important for the people they have relationships with and the culture as a whole,” says Sarah.
* Sarah Sproule can be contacted at sarahsproule.com
Kitty Maguire has seen first hand, the level of shame and trauma, when it comes to sexuality and our bodies, but she has also witnessed the deep resolve that comes with healing.
She runs courses in reclaiming your sexuality.
“Red Alchemy is a course I run and it would be for people who are reclaiming their sexuality or learning how to have intimacy with themselves. It helps break down any discomforts or fears and shame or grief that’s connected to the female genitalia. I use healing practices, guided meditations and gentle yoga, as well as Taoist techniques,” says Kitty.
Her work is influenced by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist, and author of the bestselling book, The Body Keeps the Score, which looks at the role of yoga and other embodied practices to help regulate the nervous system and to heal shame and trauma.
It also covers the menstrual cycle and provides education on the female anatomy that was lacking for Irish women in their adolescence.
During the pandemic Kitty took this course online and it sold out.
Other work she facilitates is pregnancy release circles, called a ‘Deep Resolve’. They are extremely popular because there are very few places people can talk about these issues in Irish life.
“These are anyone who holds shame in their womb space, had a traumatic pregnancy, or a pregnancy release such as abortion, miscarriage, still birth or a traumatic childbirth. A birth could have been incredibly traumatic and people are left in heightened sense of vulnerability, they might feel like they’ve failed at motherhood.
“It’s about making peace with your body, letting go of unsung songs that we don’t want to hear in society, nobody wants to know about the reality of menstruation, still birth and issues like that,” says Kitty.
It is perhaps menstruation and menstrual awareness that Kitty is most well known for having publicly tracked her own period on social media over the course of an entire year.
She shared scientific information around hormone changes that happen over the course of a menstrual cycle, from rises in testosterone and progesterone to drops in oestrogen and the effect of these weekly and monthly fluctuations on women’s bodies, energy and mood.
While interest in her work has been building steadily over the last number of years, this year Kitty saw an increased interest in her courses and trainings.
“Until this year, this work hasn’t been seen as mainstream, then all of a sudden periods have become exciting.
“Now it is like the veil had been pulled back for the first time, and the penny has dropped around mental health and the menstrual cycle,” explains Kitty.
Máire Ní G is known for her 'Female Sexual Alchemy' course, which she has been running for several years, but which she took online for the first time in 2020.
"It's for women who'd like to move from a place of disconnection to intimacy, and it's done in a safe, sensitive and trauma-informed way. It's also for people who've experienced sexual trauma or women who just maybe don't feel as connected to their sexuality as they would like to feel.
"I've a lot of teachers, lawyers, doctors, people in corporate jobs, every kind of occupation job. Irish people are really ready for this kind of work. It's such an unexplored territory in Ireland," says Máire.
Carol McInerney is another person who has been working in the field of sexuality and healing in Ireland as both a counsellor and movement therapist.
"I do one-to-one work, regular therapy. Some people want to work with the body, and some people want to work with sexuality. I also do group work, working with the womb, called 'Becoming Visible.'
"People just need space as there is so much moving through our systems, and we look at everything that would normally be hidden away," says Carol.
For more information see:
Kitty Maguire: kittymaguireyoga.ie
Carol McInerney: themovingbody.ie
Máire Ní G: universaltao.ie