Friday 25 May 2018

Stand up for sex lives

Constance Harris

'What I tried to show in the book is that sexuality begins the day we are born and lasts until the day we die -- if we want it to," Pamela Stephenson-Connolly tells me when we meet to discuss her latest book Sex Life -- How Our Sexual Encounters and Experiences Define Who We Are. "I am hoping to engender a larger level of tolerance. We are very prejudiced about sexuality in elders, for example. It's a huge taboo. And they, in turn, struggle with that."

Pamela is a petite, sexy woman and, one senses, a tough personality. Born in New Zealand and reared in Australia, she left the Antipodes in her 20s to conquer the notoriously tough international comedy circuit -- and succeeded. She married one of the world's funniest comedians, Billy Connolly, helped him come to terms with his childhood sexual abuse, has five children (her eldest stepson is 40 and her youngest is 22), moved to the US with Billy and became a clinical psychologist specialising in sex. So, you can see how she would have to be somewhat resilient.

Pamela greets me at her hotel suite door and welcomes me in. I take a chair. She sits, straight backed, at the edge of the couch, ready to start. She has the relentless gaze of a therapist -- which, of course, she is. Therapists can be very unsettling people if you don't know them; you feel like you are revealing stuff about yourself you don't even know. I am disconcerted by her focus and start to twitter nervously as I try to set my digital device to record and it refuses to co-operate.

But at a casual comment about my teenage son and girls, she instantly warms and wants to know more. I discover Pamela likes young people, as well as the elderly, very much. In fact, Pamela is nice. And as the interview progresses, I realise she is generous with information, though we never forget that we are here because she is promoting her book.

Sex Life is a thick book, but is written in a straightforward style which makes it an easy read. Chapters are set out according to decades in our lives, with direct quotes from people Pamela interviewed, mixed with counsel from her experience as a sex therapist and Guardian columnist. It is informative, not titillating. It is the kind of book, once read, you would keep for reference.

Even as I was reading it, I found her chapter on sexuality in children helpful to a friend concerned about some things, while the chapters on sexuality in seniors were hopeful and inspiring. It made me think about issues I had never considered, such as that, although we in Ireland are aware of having a big ageing population, and the issue of nursing homes and elderly vulnerability, I have never heard anyone here mention their quality-of-life issues, such as their sex lives.

Do we expect our sex lives to end because we have to surrender our keys, like children living with parents? I cannot see the sexually free baby-boomer generation being happy about that.

"It was very touching what a lot of people in their 80s and 90s said -- they really wanted to be sexual," says Pamela. "Some of them found it hard to partner, were living in residential homes, and it was hard to partner because there was a privacy issue. People with disabilities, challenged by serious illness and so on, wanted to find ways to maintain their sex lives but found it hard, found it difficult, to get answers as to how to do so, safely and so on.

"It's a quality-of-life issue. We know it is good for us. There is a lot of soothing to be had [from sexual contact]. It makes people feel better." Here, her voice softens.

Readers of Pamela's Guardian columns will know that nothing is off limits, be it the subject of special-needs children and sex, to toys and to sexual fantasies about parents. Like our own Patricia Redlich, Pamela talks of sex as having an emotionally important, soothing, aspect. "I often get letters through the Guardian saying, 'I am 92 and I am still having sex -- is this normal?' because there is a sense [from society] that it isn't and younger people, of course, are very judgemental about it," she states.

Why, I ask. "They don't want to imagine their parents having sex. And as a society, we haven't been accepting about it. But I have visited societies where they are accepting of it. So it is not a norm across the board -- not accepting sexuality in elders. It's just something our society is yeuch about.

"And I think it has a lot to do with body image; a lot to do with [how] we prioritise young bodies and youthful expression and visual images we like to see in advertising and so on -- all of beautiful and young people. So we get a mental picture of older bodies having sex and it doesn't seem so appealing. But it's not about bodies. It's about feelings."

Speaking of youth, I mention to Pamela the Dublin Wesley disco phenomenon -- where girls as young as 12 and 13 dress up in sexy outfits -- the precociousness of which has many people freaked out. What does she make of it? "There is a point at which they control their sexual power and that becomes very interesting to girls. They want to play with it. Unfortunately, they tend to get burned by it very often because it leads to stuff they aren't ready for, sometimes coercive sex. Or being treated badly.

"The difficulty is, do they have someone to talk to about this? Help them to make sense of it?" Communication is what we should be working on as parents, Pamela believes. "Our kids know a lot about our sexuality. We don't have to tell them. If we are comfortable with our own sexuality, they will pick that up and they will learn that, too. But we, in turn, are scared of childhood sexuality. We don't like being confronted with it. We conveniently forget how sexual we were as kids. It scares us, because we are scared that they would be vulnerable to abuse.

"But all kids are having sexual feelings and they will deal with it in different ways. Many people will try to stop their kids touching their genitals, or masturbating, and that, first of all, is not going to stop them. They'll just do it secretly and in the meantime, you have given them a message that sex is bad and dirty and wrong -- when they are actually doing something important, which is learning how their bodies work. I know there are religious beliefs that make this very controversial, but that is my view."

We discuss the issue of lack of language, as is clear in the child section of her book, for female genitalia, and about how women go to their doctor and don't know the words for their sex, with many having never looked at themselves.

I ask her does she think that lack of language affects our relationship with sex? Our sexuality? Does the fact that we have little to no language for our genitalia lead to disconnect and lack of power? "Yes, because it is down there, isn't it? I usually know a lot about a person's sexuality if I hear how they refer to their own genitals. If they can't even say the word, or if they don't know the difference between vagina and vulva. It is amazing how many people in their 30s, 40s and beyond, actually don't really know what is going on down there. They've never looked at it; they've never even seen diagrams."

Pamela had her own battles with sex in the form of prejudice in her early career. "People were saying, 'But can a pretty woman really be funny?' They did say things like that to me. It was unusual [to them]. It wasn't unusual for me because I had seen Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett and people who were brilliant, on American television when I was growing up in Australia, so it was surprising that they were surprised."

We discuss career changing. She is interested in how, with the recession and redundancies here, some people are finally realising deep-held dreams, and entrepreneurship is on the rise. She left her established career in comedy and living in the UK, as Billy's career took off in the US, to begin the long road to train as a clinical psychologist in California.

"It was a big move," she says. "It was a huge move. But it was a great move. And it was one I was really overdue, because I had fallen out of love with comedy a few years by the time I made other changes. It does, nevertheless, take courage to change. I remember feeling that it was kind of frightening at the time. But I knew deep down it was the right decision."

Looking at the relaxed woman in front of me, reclining on the couch at this point, clearly at ease with her own sexuality and body, no fidgeting with tops or hemlines or hair, one sees the embodiment of how change is good and following one's instincts pays off.

"If we don't take responsibility for our own pleasure, we are not going to have as much pleasure -- it's as simple as that," she states.

"I am just like anybody else. You learn by experiences. Sex is a learned experience. We don't know about it to begin with. We have to find a way to communicate who we are sexually to our partners and for them to communicate it back to us. Along the way, we are exploring, perhaps trying out a few new things. Finding out who we are sexually."

Pamela is relentless in her message that we have to get over the stigma of speaking about sex in a real way. Be it as a family, a society, as a couple, as an individual. Improvement and comfort comes from communication, openness and honesty. "Maybe some people think women innately know how to get on top and make it work -- well they don't," she stresses. "Sex is a learnt behaviour. It takes practice. It takes a building up of thigh muscles." She laughs mischievously, and flashes her mysterious green eyes at me, inviting me in.

I am a convert to her cause.

'Sex Life -- How Our Sexual Encounters and Experiences Define Who We Are' by Pamela Stephenson-Connolly is published by Ebury Press, €15.99

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