Have we at all emerged from under the dark cloud of Catholicism and its suppression and demonising of sexuality by its shepherds and the collusion by its leaders with a dark underground of sexual violation of children? Have we come to a mature place of reclaiming and enjoying one’s own body, deciding on what is right or wrong for oneself, appreciation of all parts of one’s body, feeling comfortable with self-pleasuring and honouring those parts of one’s body that have such an amazing capacity for pleasure and procreation. It would appear that some shift has occurred but it has not been a mature one; we have gone from sexuality as taboo to sexuality as licence. There has developed a huge emphasis on sex in Irish society but, ironically, there is very little openness or realness for men and women around sexual expression. Regrettably, parents and teachers still struggle with embarrassment when having to discuss sexuality with young people and, indeed, the vast majority of parents do not talk with children and teenagers about sexuality.
For those of us reared as Catholics up to the eighties sexuality was rife with prescriptions, proscriptions, strict rules and norms about how to behave sexually. Threats more usually arose from proscriptions for example, “you mustn’t do that because it’s sinful”; “nice girls don’t do that or think like that”; “sex is something you don’t talk about”; “you don’t have sex with a nice girl”; “don’t bring shame to the family”. Of course, during that dark era, ignorance was rampant and lack of communication pervasive. Research shows that not much has changed for young people with the major difference being that the threats are more likely to arise from prescriptions about how they must be – for example, “you’re odd, not cool if you don’t engage in casual sexual encounters with people you hardly even know”. Furthermore, in contemporary times there are very definite conditions around “entitlement” to sexual expression – for example, there is a very strong message that it is only for the young, only for the physically alluring – as this is defined by leaders in the media – that it is only for the fit and healthy. There are also strict rules about what constitutes sexual attractiveness, especially for women, but increasingly so for men; rules that research shows even very young children are exposed to and take on board. Sadly, if sexuality was harshly suppressed in the past, in the present, it has become commercialised to a degree never before seen. Furthermore, if previously sexuality was not to be enjoyed, now it is a means to an end rather than a joy in itself.
The mature holding of sexuality that is needed in homes, schools and churches was not and is still not present and there continues to be a dire need for education for authentic sexual expression for parents, teachers and clergy so that they can provide wise guidance for young people. Sexuality is but one of the expressions of our human nature; equally important are physical, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, social, creative and spiritual. Sexuality is most powerfully held when it is responded to in the context of all of the expressions. Adults and young people are better enabled to make safe, responsible, respectful, open and mature sexual choices for themselves when they have the physical safety to accept and look after their bodies, the emotional safety to identify and follow their own feelings, the intellectual safety to make up their own mind about what is right for them, the social safety to not to conform and stay true to themselves, the behavioural safety to take ownership and responsibility for their own actions and consequences of same, the creative safety to express their own uniqueness and individuality and the spiritual safety to glimpse their deeper nature, a silent presence that has no shape, location or form. All of the foregoing is aspirational and can only become a reality when we come into consciousness of so many of our experiences of, reactions to and defences to sexuality that are below the surface of our conscious awareness. We bury these responses, because in our early lives, there was no emotional or social safety to deal straightforwardly with what arose in us. In early life we had to fit around our parents, teachers, priests and other significant adults because we were completely dependent on them for our sense of belonging and love; we had to conform and we found ourselves unconsciously living someone else’s life. It is quite a challenge to allow what is hidden about our sexual expression to come to the surface; but unless we can consciously sit with what we currently feel, think and how we react to sexual expression, no progress can be made towards dancing to our own music rather than dancing to someone else’s tune. I will write more on this important matter next week.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author and National and International Speaker. A course on Authentic Sexual Self-Expression has been devised by Dr. Helen Ruddle, Counselling Psychologist and Author and trained facilitators are available to run this course in the community.