Why sex should no longer be a dirty word

The ‘shame’ that continues to shroud sexual discourse in this country forces children to turn to the internet for information in lieu of formal sex education, writes Joyce Fegan.

Why sex should no longer be a dirty word

The ‘shame’ that continues to shroud sexual discourse in this country forces children to turn to the internet for information in lieu of formal sex education, writes Joyce Fegan.

In the absence of proper sex education our children are turning to the internet for information.

That’s the view of Caroline West, who is completing her PhD in Dublin City University (DCU) on porn studies. However, she is unwilling to criticise parents because they often received no sex education themselves.

Instead, she is planting the blame directly at the feet of shame.

“We need to move to a place, where there’s less shame and stigma to one where ‘sex is grand, it’s no big deal’,” she says. “Why shame something that is natural, something that is the most fundamental part of human existence? We literally would not be here without it.”

From her research, she has examined the course of Irish sexuality over the last century. She has also looked at our conversation, or lack of conversation around sex and where we are today.

“The way we used to talk about sex was: ‘Have your 12 babies, be a good Catholic woman, lie back and think of Ireland.’ We’ve had that discourse for so long, we have a long history of banning books that talk about sex too,” says Ms West.

And recently we’ve shifted from absolutely no conversation to now having the internet with absolutely everything about sex instantly accessible on people’s smartphones.

Now we have the material, we have everything, but we haven’t turned it into a healthy conversation.

In the absence of proper sex education and unable to talk to their caregivers, children will seek out information online. If this happens it is crucial not to “fear-monger”, says Ms West.

“If you find out your 11-year-old is watching porn, have a conversation with them, don’t fear-monger. It can be them finding a way to explore their sexuality, the only place where they can find information in the absence of education.

"Create a space where your child can come to you.”

She believes it is also “unfair” to assume parents are equipped to talk about sexuality, consent and porn with their children, when they often have their own “hang-ups” as a result of lack of education.

However, she adds that “saying nothing isn’t good enough” and directs parents to websites such as thepornconversation.org or thetalk.ie, created by her colleague, Sarah Sproule, for helpful information.

Children and teenagers aside, Ms West believes that Irish adults need to come out from under the decades of shame around sexuality and change their own conversations.

“In Ireland, where we have quite a repressive relationship with sex,” she says. “The conversation is only about STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and recently, abortion, never about pleasure.

“We need to change our conversation about sex to one where it’s about sexuality, desire, consent and pleasure as opposed to a wall of silence or negativity.

“We went from having síle na gigs [12th century carvings of naked women displaying their vulvas] displayed on walls and above doorways all around Ireland to viewing sex as just for pro-creation purposes, something you couldn’t have any pleasure from.”

However, despite our repressive relationship with sex, Ms West says most people she meets are fascinated by her area of research.

“When people find out what I do, the conversation isn’t necessarily about porn as such,” she says. “It’s a great way to get people to talk about sex. Porn is the most visible flashpoint we have in our society and people are more comfortable talking about that than they are sex.

“I often end up acting as a listening board for people, it’s amazing how hungry people are to talk, they tell me about their issues and how they often feel they can’t talk about sex honestly.”

Her own research deals specifically with performers’ voices in the porn industry and, as part of her PhD, she has carried out interviews with women working in pornography.

“My research isn’t looking at whether porn is right or wrong, good or bad,” says Ms West. “However, it does exist and we need to look at it.

I had noticed that when we talk about porn, you never heard from the performers; there was no representation or discussion about what it was like for them.

Of the women she interviewed, there was no one story or reason for entering the industry. They all had a range of education levels, from having no second-level schooling to holding PhDs.

Some ventured into the industry after trying mainstream modelling and others actively chose to go into it.

Some of the women planned to stay working in it and others aimed to leave after two years.

When it came to the negatives, the women interviewed said “stigma” around their work meant they had been fired from teaching and real estate jobs when their pasts were revealed and also said they were viewed as “tainted” when it came to having their own relationships with a partner.

Ms West says that while we may be reluctant to talk openly about sex in Ireland, porn can often be an entry point into a conversation around sexuality.

She argues that fear-mongering and sensationalism must not be a part of it if we are to have a “healthy” and “healing” discussion.

“In October 2016, when the then taoiseach Enda Kenny said we need to have a ‘national conversation about pornography’, the reaction was fascinating,” she says.

“It triggered a lot of conversations, particularly in the media, but at that time the media failed to have honest, healing conversations about sex, it was more about fear-mongering.”

Ms West. however, acknowledges that it is hard to be “calm” about the issue because of the decades of silence in Irish society.

“I was in the Late Late Show audience when the panel spoke about porn almost exclusively in a negative, sensationalist way and everyone was squirming,” she says.

“It is hard to have a calm conversation about sex when there has been so much shame and silence surrounding it. But saying all that, we do now have a thirst to talk about it, so let’s go for it.”

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