Adults need to develop a vision for themselves in regard to authentic sexual self-expression, not only for their own sakes, but also for the sake of young people. It is important that adults, particularly parents and teachers, model such a vision and provide a mature holding of sexuality for young people.
Threats to mature sexuality can arise in any of the environments in which young people participate: home, school - school-mates, teachers - peer group, church, community, wider society, sports clubs, including media, internet. Threats may be communicated in different ways: verbally, behaviourally, through attitude, through non-verbal messages, through silence, through dress, through images, through being kept in ignorance. All adults and young people themselves have a responsibility not to cause threat, but, when a mature sexuality is not present, then this is precisely what is created.
Among Gandhi’s modern-day interpretation of the ‘seven deadly sins’ is one of particular relevance to sexuality: ‘pleasure without conscience.’ This ‘sin’ is of a particular relevance to the development of a mature vision of sexuality when you interpret the word ‘conscience’ as ‘a consciousness of the sacredness, worth and value of Self and of the other person.’ When such a consciousness is present, then sexual activity is always dignifying of oneself and of one’s sexual partner. The typical definition of ‘sex’ is that it is a ‘physical act of intimacy, or love, or simple pleasure between two consenting adults.’ However, while sex simply for pleasure has its own place, if it becomes the prevailing understanding of sexual activity, as is portrayed strongly in our culture, it masks the connection between sexuality and emotional intimacy, namely unconditional love. In other words, pleasure as the sole understanding of sexual expression – which in many ways was a progressive step on from the Catholic Church’s notion that ‘sex was primarily for procreation’ – undermines a deeper and more holistic definition of sexuality – as being about vitality, life, connection with another and a life force that is not identical with sexual activity. Sex just for pleasure, more often than not, does not include responsibility, sensitivity to another person’s story and sense of self, mutual respect and mutual valuing and appreciation.
In many ways, so-called sexual liberation – what in truth is licence rather than liberation – while it has freed many people from restraints – it has reduced sex to something banal, requiring little commitment, sensitivity or responsibility. It would appear that in regard to sexual expression Irish society has simply flipped the coin and moved from one type of defensiveness – repression – to another – licence. A more mature vision of sexuality recognises that self-possession and personal maturity are the key to free, spontaneous, pleasurable and fulfilling sexual expression – not just having the physiological where-with-all to ‘do it!’
What we would want for ourselves as adults is also what needs to be communicated to young people:
- To have a mature knowledge of sexuality (ignorance is not bliss when it comes to responsible sexual behaviour)
- To see sex as beautiful, open, joyous, right
- To be able to celebrate their sexuality
- To be aware of the influences that impinge on them
- To not do anything they don’t want to do; to not act out of pressure
- To be able to say ‘no’
- To stay in touch with themselves; use their feelings as their guide; to know what is fitting for themselves
- To have a solid sense of self; to be able to be one’s own person
- To be able to take action for themselves
- To keep themselves safe
- To be able to communicate openly about sexuality
- To be respectful of themselves and of others
However, the significant adults in young people’s lives can only communicate the above when they hold that vision and practice for themselves. All the signs are that a mature holding of sexuality is not common among adults and what is direly required is for adults to explore and deepen their own values, beliefs and practice. We are so painfully aware of what repression of sexuality led to in Ireland; we also need to be aware that licence (the opposite and just as powerful a defence) can also have major painful consequences.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author. Tony will give a lecture ‘The Inner Course’ in UCC, Room ? on Tuesday, 28th July, 8 – 9.30 p.m. Opportunities to gain information on Tony’s UCC Certificate, Diploma and Higher Diploma courses on Communication, Parent Mentoring and Relationship Studies respectively will be provided. Admission free. For further details, telephone Margaret at 086 – 1730012.