Lack of 'Catholic guilt' has pros and cons
I'm proud of our progressive attitude to sexuality, but this openness brings its own problems
A number of things have changed in Ireland over the last 50 years, but one of the most dramatic changes has been in the area of sexual behaviour and, thankfully, an acceptance of the many different forms of sexuality. I was very proud after the vote to legalise same-sex marriage to receive emails from friends in many different countries congratulating Ireland on being so progressive.
There are many benefits in our new openness and lack of what used to be termed as 'Catholic guilt' regarding sex. It is good that sex can be seen as a natural act between two people and wonderful that people now seek help in the form of sex therapy for their sexual problems.
Indeed, one of the great benefits when medications became available for men with erectile dysfunction was the fact that it became acceptable to talk about problems and realise that lots of others were in the same situation.
However, this openness brings its own problems - for instance, I am concerned at the age at which young people are beginning to be fully sexual. I believe that 13 or 14 is simply too young to have sex. Obviously, with the availability of contraception and the morning-after pill, the girl can at least avoid becoming pregnant or getting a sexually transmitted disease, but even though they may look like they are young women who are wise in the ways of the world, they are not and can revert to being a child in an instant.
Equally, I believe that early teens is far too young for young men to be fully sexual. They are certainly not mentally capable of making the connection between sexual and emotional intimacy, and so, the danger is that they will see sex as a commodity and will continue to do so as they get older. This may well lead to problems as they try to establish relationships later in life.
I have never heard a client say they wished they had started having sex earlier than they did, whereas many have told me that they wish they had waited.
The family unit as we knew it, is also undergoing a revolution of sorts. Whereas the norm used to be married heterosexual couples with children, there are now same-sex parents with children, couples cohabiting with children, blended families where each partner has children from a previous relationship, and many others.
At the heart of each of these units is the couple, and it is from them that the children get their values. It is the couple who show the example of how love and intimacy work and this has always been the case, no matter what the era.
At a time when sexual material is readily accessible at the click of a mouse, then it is even more important that parents instil in their children that sexual intimacy together with emotional intimacy is a far better deal than just sex.
There are some things that I would rate as important to get across to young teenagers with regard to sexual activity, and even if they don't want to hear what is being said, a parent should persevere.
A lot of sexual experimentation is as a result of peer pressure and this should be talked about. Young teens don't want to be seen as different from the others and want to be part of the gang, and it is often easier to go along with things rather than say no. So pointing out that it is okay to say no and, more than likely others will follow suit, is worth mentioning.
The part that alcohol plays in lowering resistance and increasing desire should also be spoken about. One mother told me that she made her children promise that they wouldn't have their first fully sexual experience with a lot of alcohol and they remained true to their promise. This all may sound very old-fashioned and non-progressive, but it is, I believe, advice that is still relevant.
It is natural for children to disregard what their parents say, believing them to be out of touch with modern-day living. Indeed, it is a very natural part of growing up and cutting the ties, but it is also true that parental values stay with us throughout our lives, and in later life, people find themselves - often to their horror - repeating their parents' words to their own children.
A recently widowed friend was telling me about his wonderful 55-year marriage and how different everything is now to when they got married. He recounted that being very young and quite poor, they were having a small wedding breakfast which, in those days, was always held in the morning immediately after the service.
They longed to be together and have sex, but hadn't done so because they had believed it would be wrong and so waited until they were married.
In the taxi on the way to the breakfast, his wife got the driver to go by the husband's apartment where they rushed up to his bedroom and had sex.
His eyes sparkled as he told me that when they had finished, she jumped up and down saying "We did it, we did it!"
Then, they continued on their way to the wedding celebrations.
It was such a lovely story and so different to modern-day weddings, where the majority have lived together and may even have children before they tie the knot.
I'm not saying either way is better - they each have pros and cons - but I'm struck by how things have progressed.
Woody Allen's character in Love and Death says "sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as meaningless experiences go, it's one of the best" and there is a lot truth in that.
Sex with a complete stranger can be exciting in a different way to sex with a long-term partner. But what I am concerned about is people looking on a sexual transaction as just that, and as a result of early sexual experiences with multiple partners, then finding it difficult to be monogamous when they meet somebody with whom they want to have a long-term relationship and start a family.
A long-term relationship - whether it be between two men, two women or a man and a woman - is a beautiful thing. It encompasses love, trust, respect, sharing, caring and many more things beyond the sexual element.
The feeling of being the most important thing in another person's life is something to be both nurtured and treasured.
I continue to smile at the mental image of the bride jumping up and down with delight after her first fully sexual experience with the man she loved. That truly was sexual and emotional intimacy combined.