Sexual liberation has been a long time coming, but the internet has added a few surprise elements
Published 10/01/2016 | 16:00
We have spent the past few years pitying the young. We're told they're squeezed between little children and ageing parents. We're told that they can't afford mortgages, that they are and will remain without pensions, that they've been condemned to emigration. We're told that they are the first generation in the history of the State to be poorer than the one that preceded it. And all of that is true. We must hang our heads for them.
And yet looking up slightly, through one eyebrow, can we really, truly say it is a bad time to be young? After all, the thing that's always been top of the checklist to do when you are young - throw open the doors and let the sexual revolution in, has already been done for them. They needed only swan in when the battles were won and enjoy unprecedented (for Ireland anyway) access to guilt-free sex: the end of rigid monogamy; the explosion of dating apps; the emergence of online porn and masturbation as uncontentious facts of life; a burgeoning hook-up culture; kink as mainstream. The list goes on.
We lived our sexual lives in shame and fear. They have been given the freedom to eat everything on the menu and make themselves sick. And, unlike previous generations of fuddy-duddies, Ireland's weary middle-aged, married and settled, don't even have the satisfaction of finger wagging, shaming or shouting: "Too much fun might kill you!"
They can only press their famished faces against the glass of this new sexual culture and console themselves that at least these young pups can't afford chandeliers to swing from.
Millennials exist at a strange crossroads in Ireland's sexual development. They haven't a notion of getting married or having children: over the last decade, the average age at which Irish people get hitched has crept up from 31 to 35, while the average age at which a woman has her first pregnancy is almost 32.
There is a baby boom going on but it's one that fits in around our busy lives; one in six children born here is now an IVF child. Young Irish people are sexually active earlier than at any time in our history (a fifth lose their virginity by the time they are 15) and they are likely to have more sexual partners than any generation that preceded them. They are also more likely to be single.
Attitudes to commercial sex and prostitution have also changed; few young people regard the sale of sex as a purely moral issue. Young men - in their 20s - are more likely to have paid for sex in the last year than any group of men up to those in their 50s.
We accept sexuality as one of the ultimate expressions of the self, rather than as a marker of conformity.
All of this is to be seen in the context of recent history. The abuse scandals and waning influence of the church mean that we have now moved from a culture in which expressions of sexual desire were mostly repressed to a culture defined by consumption and self-indulgence.
The current crop of Irish people in their 20s and 30s have grown up in a world in which, unlike in previous generations, the chastity of women was not an economic and religious issue. They grew up after the advent of state-sponsored sex education in schools, but were born too late to remember the hysteria about Aids. They have witnessed, in their lifetime, the gay rights movement move from the outskirts of acceptability to the heart of society. They have seen transgression become the new normal. And they have in many ways woven that into their own lives.
Almost uniquely in an international context, this current generation of young people have lived through the most seismic changes in their country's sexual attitudes. This is because by the time they were born, Ireland still had a lot of catching-up to do. In the 1980s, you still couldn't buy condoms in a chemist. Priests still roamed dancehalls with torches. First sexual fumblings usually took place in a car park to strains of Amhran na bhFiann coming from the parish hall. Porn had to be sourced by nodding meaningfully at a video shop owner (the shiftier the better) while asking if he had "anything else."
Women were still expected to be chaste and intent on marriage. Men were expected to sublimate their sexual voraciousness in functional alcoholism. Homosexuality was a wrong that was hushed up; Irish celebrities who contracted HIV, like Vincent Hanley, did not admit to it. And basically, shagging happened wordlessly with the lights out.
Then the 1990s dawned and 30 years after sex had been invented in England it came to Ireland. After a struggle between interest groups for and against, sex education was introduced in schools. In 1993, a quarter of a century after England had taken the same step, homosexuality was finally decriminalised in Ireland.
Dublin's first sex shops opened in the face of some rather extreme opposition, although they were raided several times during the 1990s.
And porn started to make its way into the mainstream under the guise of 'sex education'. The Lover's Guide had already had an astonished airing during The Late Late Show in 1991 and by the mid-1990s all manner of sex how-tos were on sale via the aptly named Virgin Megastore on Aston Quay. The image of the pure, motherhood-focussed Irishwoman was on the way out. When Nuala O'Faolain went on the Late Late in 1997 Gay Byrne remarked that she had slept with a lot of men. She responded: "Only two that ever counted, and that isn't many" and, crucially, still seemed quite respectable.
By the late 1990s, the internet was starting to become common currency in Irish households. Its potential to unlock the key to all human knowledge for the masses was quickly understood as entirely secondary to its capacity to search for niche pornography.
But it also could enable people to find each other online. Initially, this function was used mainly by gay people, but the internet as a hook-up tool soon spread like wildfire to the heterosexual community. Dating websites seemed to present an endless vista of possibility and the apps that followed on from them made sleeping with someone much easier but finding a partner no less difficult. Freud said that children cry as easily from too much choice as from constricted choice and a few months on Tinder is enough to leave anyone in need of psychoanalysis.
Standards of public sexuality have changed for this generation too. We no longer demand that our politicians be married and faithful. In pop culture, we have accepted kink in the mainstream. It was people in their 20s and 30s - not (as commonly believed) middle-aged women - who made 50 Shades such a phenomenon.
The most shocking pop culture images of the 1990s - Madonna gyrating in her corset - seem almost twee when set against the Bratz dolls, Kim Kardashian (who alchemised a single blow job into an entire light-entertainment industry) and Miley Cyrus twerking with a Teddy Bear. The 'virgin' shaming of previous generations has been replacing by the slut-shaming of the internet.
And yet the consequences of an eternity in cyberspace infamy have to be seen in historical context. Ann Lovett lost her life. Slane Girl, as much as she suffered, escaped with hers.
And yet while this current generation of young Irish people are, on the face of it, freer than any that came before them, there is the niggling sense that one soulless sexual regime may have been merely swapped out for another. The spiritual-human-connection aspect of sex was abnegated during the reign of the church and now again in the reign of the unseeing online porn eye.
Today's 20-and 30-somethings may have sex in their lives as a advertising ploy or a dating chess move but it's still not understood as what John McGahern, no cheer leader of the church, called "the human act of becoming".
The very cheapness and ubiquity of modern sex mitigates against this. And that is bad for us on almost every level. A few years ago, the noted STD specialist Derek Freedman was asked on television what he would say to Irish people about sex.
The interviewer doubtless expected some kind of sage, abstention-based advice but Freedman, who is Jewish (and therefore not infected with many of the Catholic-ethos prejudices some us might carry) simply said: "I would advise them to have good sex."
He elaborated that good sex was satisfying sex and satisfying sex with one partner was the surest talisman against promiscuity. Perhaps in this we have the clearest, most ideology-free exhortation that one could wish for Irish youth. And for older generations, surveying the new sexual landscape, it may have to do in lieu of some satisfying finger-wagging.