Sunday 17 December 2017

Let's talk about sex Ireland

We may live in an oversexualised society, but discussing what goes on between the sheets remains a taboo. It's time to rid ourselves of the historic hangover of shame and start a grown-up conversation, writes sexologist Emily Power Smith

Communication is key to a good sex life
Communication is key to a good sex life
Clinical sexologist Emily Power Smith of

There seems to be a level of shame around fantasies and desires among Irish people. I do a lot of talks across the country - mainly with women - and there is still this outdated idea that being a sexual person with needs and desires is not what good girls do.

There's also a worry that if they tell their partner or friends about their true desires, then they're going to be thought of as silly, or naïve, or perverted. So they keep a lot of that stuff to themselves.

Men never really talk to their friends about sex in a helpful way, and women don't seem to anymore. I think women are going the same route as men in this mistaken idea that it is progress or girl power to be as laddish and bawdy as men.

So women either do the bravado thing - 'Sex is amazing and I have six orgasms a day!' Or else they bitch - 'It's Friday again so I guess I'm going to have to let him away with it.' That isn't really empowerment, though. It's just bravado.

Clinical sexologist Emily Power Smith of
Clinical sexologist Emily Power Smith of

Status anxiety is another issue. People seem to be more worried about other people's sex than their own sex. The society we live in is oversexualised and it has made us all anxious that we are not as good as our neighbour. Just like our bodies and our cars and our parenting, we're anxiously looking to our neighbours and wondering if they're having more sex than us, or better sex than us.

Quite often, with people who come to me, the issue is just talking about what they like and don't like. They can't express themselves in front of each other so it wouldn't be uncommon for me to have couples wishing to work separately to avoid talking about sex. I'm always quick to point out that it defeats the purpose of being in couple's therapy.

I also advise couples to start communicating about sex at the very beginning of a romantic relationship - even if there are no apparent concerns. In the first throes of a sexual relationship, we have such a rush of hormones that it kind of covers up a lack of skills and communication. Just seeing your partner or thinking about your partner is enough to get you on the boil. What happens then is that the myth of 'we're really sexually compatible' is reinforced. People think they don't have to talk about it. It just works.

Then, when the hormones stop racing, they move into the next phase. This is usually when couples break up as they think they're not right for each other or suddenly the sex isn't so good. The expectations that people have around sex only compounds the issue. People think good sex comes naturally and spontaneously and that your partner should know intuitively what you like and don't like. But these ideas are simply not true.

So how does one broach the issue? The first step is to remember that talking about sex in an authentic way is going to be awkward for everybody. However, you cannot have intimacy without vulnerability. If you're really being honest, you're going to feel vulnerable, and what will come out of that - if you manage the conversation well - is real intimacy.

If you can say to your partner, 'This is really awkward for me to talk about but I'm risking it because I love you and I want to have a better sexual relationship than we're having', and they meet you half way, the levels of connection afterwards are deeper than you could ever imagine.

Just be careful not to discuss your likes and dislikes while in the throes. It's a really vulnerable position and not the time to point out things that aren't working.

If you've been with each other for a while and you're good communicators, fine. But if you're new to the relationship, it's best not to broach it when you're both naked and trying to perform to the best of your abilities.

I find that people in loving relationships are frightened of denting their partner's ego. They would rather have bad sex or no sex at all than risk hurting their partner's feelings. In other cases, I've noticed that couples who aren't having sex would prefer to not have sex than talk about the fact that they're not having sex.

Elsewhere, couples avoid talking about erectile difficulties, even though it's going to happen to most men. The erection is either not arriving, or it's not remaining in the way it used to, and they don't have the skills to know what it means, or what they can do about it. They think it's something wrong with them, or else their partner takes it personally and thinks there's something wrong with him/her. Quite often they just withdraw from each other and, by the time they seek help, other sexual issues have emerged.

The other problem is women who don't understand their arousal cycle. Our sexual expectations of women have become perfunctory. It has gone beyond empowerment. We now expect women to produce an orgasm in the same time it takes a man to ejaculate, even though we have different arousal cycles to men.

The pressure to orgasm is immense and, in many ways, we've gone back to women having orgasms to please their partners.

The issue of consent should also be discussed. Nobody should do as much as a gentle spanking or a blindfolding without a conversation beforehand. Remember, you are engaging in power play, and in order for it to be play, both of you have to be 100pc sure of the rules and the parameters.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a really bad example of how to go about it because this is not an equitable relationship at all. Similarly, movies often portray couples tying each other up in a giggly, jokey way, but it's actually very frightening if you're getting tied up and you don't know if you're going to get untied and you don't know what's going to happen to you. Any sort of BDSM has to be done incredibly respectfully with a lot of communication.

If you want to initiate an authentic conversation about sex with your friends, try referring to a TV programme you saw or a book you read. That way you can invite a serious conversation without forcing it.

If you want to initiate a conversation about sex with your child, remember that it's a lot easier to discuss during pre-puberty. If you start age-appropriate conversation about bodies, private touch and pleasure at a younger age, it normalises conversations that are more focussed on sex when they get older.

Besides, a lot of research shows that parents who wait until their child is a teenager to deliver 'The Talk' aren't telling them anything they don't already know.

It will just be mortifying for everybody involved and they'll reject you and ridicule you because that's their job at that age. So ask yourself if you're just ticking the box and having The Talk so that you're off the hook without actually thinking of your child's welfare.

Before broaching the conversation, I highly recommend that you go online and look for young people's websites and find out what's being taught and what's available so that you can update your own information. You could also prepare for the conversation by practicing with another adult beforehand.

Finally, remember to field any sexual concerns with your GP. For instance, if you have been prescribed an SSRI [antidepressant] and you notice after three months that your libido has disappeared, then you need to go back to your GP and tell them.

And remember, if you are fobbed off, shamed or told that it's nothing to worry about, then your GP isn't doing their job properly.

* Emily Power Smith was in conversation with Katie Byrne

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