Dr Ciara Kelly: Sex is more available now - and at a far younger age
The contraceptive pill freed women and gave them the opportunity to enjoy sex - but technology has had a huge impact too
Published 03/10/2016 | 02:30
I was once asked on a radio panel what invention had most changed the modern world. I was with three male panellists and they answered in this order: 'The wheel', 'The internet' and 'The plough'. There was general murmurings of agreement at each other's answers and then it was my turn and I said 'The oral contraceptive pill'. There were general looks of confusion. That didn't register as being up there with the other more obvious, dare I say, predictable answers.
But my rationale was thus. Decoupling pregnancy from sex has changed the game of sexual politics forever. And levelled the playing field - sexually speaking - for women, which has had a knock-on effect on both modern relationships but also by extension, the workplace and, therefore, the world ever since. And it has radically changed the way we view sex - whether we realise it or not.
Prior to the pill, women had to try to avoid sex until marriage, if they didn't want to 'get in trouble' and be left holding the baby - literally. That meant either a shotgun wedding or being a single parent, which in turn meant becoming a social pariah, certain poverty and very often a life of struggle for both the woman and her child - not the greatest aphrodisiac. Hence, women were often very reluctant to have casual sex - perpetuating the myth that women don't actually like sex, which still knocks around today in some quarters. Women being able to sleep with someone without the fear of pregnancy has changed everything and led directly to where we are today.
It's still true that many if not most people want a meaningful relationship - indeed a sense of connectedness is fundamental to people being happy. However, waiting for marriage before you have sex is now almost unheard of. Most people will have had several sexual partners before they meet 'the one', and in many cases have other sexual partners after they meet them, too. Almost one in two marriages ends in divorce, in some parts of the world - although that's considerably lower here (closer to one in 10). Infidelity also seems to be increasingly common. Ethical non-monogamy - where a couple agree to an open relationship and sexual partners outside the primary relationship - and swinging are also growing movements.
In fact, sex without any romantic relationship at all is a phenomenon that widely exists today. And online apps, such as Tinder, have facilitated a fairly efficient way of casually hooking up sexually with someone, with an ease that we simply could not have imagined years ago. In much the same way as a job for life has become a thing of the past, a relationship for life doesn't mean what it used to. When it comes to young people, the model of monogamy is almost broken with it being very common for people to date multiple parties at any one time.
So what is going on, sexually speaking, in Ireland in the 21st century?
Porn and online dating
Well like every aspect of our lives a lot of it has moved online. Irish people of all ages have embraced porn, with roughly 80pc of men and 50pc of women saying they have watched it. People between the ages of 35-44 are the most likely to watch it. In a survey, a quarter of Irish people have admitted to watching it weekly, and, interestingly, more women than men say it has had a positive impact on their sex lives.
The omnipresence of the smart phone now means websites like Pornhub can be watched easily anytime, anyplace. The average age at which people first view porn has dropped like a stone, so kids as young as 11 and 12 are viewing it. Porn addiction is a real issue, and some people's relationships are damaged by it.
Another knock-on effect has been the erasure of pubic hair from most women. As someone who examines a lot of crotches - I have seen pubes decline over time from full blown, to neatly trimmed, to the Brazilian landing strip, to the full naked Hollywood pubeless pudendas favoured today. Many younger men have never seen female pubic hair at all and unless fashions change radically, possibly never will.
Other online aspects of modern sex lives are phone apps like Tinder or, if you're gay, Grindr. You simply download these apps and they tell you who's in your vicinity looking to hook up. You swipe your screen one way if you like them and the other way if you don't. The makers of the app say it's not about sex, it's about dating. But certainly a lot of users say many people on the app are only using it to cruise for sex.
Other online dating websites, like Match.com and Plentymorefish, are also popular ways to meet people looking for sex or relationships, and are a good alternative for those at the stage in their lives when they don't want to have to hang around the pub in order to meet someone.Phone sex
Everyone having a phone glued to their hand has also resulted in the proliferation of phone sex - where couples talk sexually to each other over the phone with or without masturbation, and also sexting - sending sexy suggestive text messages. This has become a normal part of dating, particularly for younger people who never really knew what it was to date before mobile phones.
Sending sexual photographs of yourself, or making a sex tape of yourself and a partner engaging in various acts, to people you're dating is now also really common and something that people often live to regret if and when they break up and they realise their ex has some compromising shots of them. Revenge porn where an ex shares said photos on social media among their friends, is also something people have to contend with - so as ever, sometimes getting carried away in the moment comes back to haunt you.
Friends with benefits
It is now widely acknowledged that even those who aren't up for dating or in a relationship may want to have sex. So friends with benefits or 'f**k buddies' as it's commonly known, is now also popular, where two pals who don't really want a romantic relationship have sex sometimes, casually to fulfil the need. And of course if you want sex and there is no one at all available, masturbation with or without sex toys is a choice.
The numbers of sex workers is rising in Ireland, so we can only assume demand must be too. Although it is extremely rare that you will ever meet anyone who says they have used prostitution as the stigma is still very great here.
Fetish, bondage, S&M
They may be niche but there are thriving communities and websites for this lot to get together and do their things. Sex shops and online sellers provide everything from costumes to props to get you in the mood.
Sexually transmitted infections
These are on the rise here, in conjunction with the increase in the average number of sexual partners people are now having. The greatest number of people infected are in the 18-34 age group - as condoms have fallen in popularity since fears of HIV have diminished in the general population.
A common phenomenon we see is people using condoms the first couple of times they sleep with someone but then stopping when they become more emotionally entangled - even though sentiment is no bar to catching an infection. Gonorrhoea, chlamydia, herpes, syphilis and HIV are all climbing in Ireland - but most people when asked say they never worry about their sexual health, even though they are sexually active.
Ireland is a new country when it comes to how we view sex even as compared with 10 or 20 years ago. The influence of the Church has been far exceeded by the influence of television, porn and a new social order that doesn't feel guilty and wants to have sex. From dressing up to threesomes, from vibrators to anal beads, people are experimenting more and more. Some do get their hearts broken or their feelings hurt in an era of casual sex, but equally many people have found it liberating to not have to apologise or feel bad about doing what comes naturally.
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