herald

Saturday 2 August 2014

The day sex came out of the closet

You are a 30-year-old sex goddess, and you think you know it all. And you do, when you look back on the sex lives of Irish women 30 years ago, a time when the contraceptive pill and condoms were not legally available.

The year you were born was when Charles Haughey, Minister for Health, brought in the Health (Family Planning) Act 1979, making condoms legally available in Dublin for the first time. However, a doctor's prescription was required, and doctors only prescribed for married men. (Condoms became available in your local chemists without prescription in 1985.)

Back in 1979, a young woman couldn't get the contraceptive pill unless she convinced a doctor she had problems with irregular menstruation (the only reason a doctor was allowed to legally prescribe the Pill.) Oh, and she also had to be married.

It doesn't sound possible, these days, when condoms are on open display in pharmacies and placed right beside the late-night service window of convenience stores. But people in their teens or 20s during the 70s could not legally get contraception.

You were supposed to have sex only within marriage. And since, according to the Catholic Church, even within marriage, sex was about procreation, why would you need contraception? Married couples, according to the thinking of the time, shouldn't be having sex just for the pleasure of it. They should be having sex only if they wanted a baby to result from going to bed with each other.



Swinging

If you were in your teens or 20s, you knew about the swinging 60s. That was when the Pill hit Britain and sex, for the first time, began to be something you did for the hell of it. Without being married. Without planning to fill a cradle. That new view of sex filled the fashion magazines. Irish girls living at home (as opposed to the ones working in London and doing a bit of swinging themselves) couldn't imagine such freedom.

Because it wasn't here, that freedom to have sex with your boyfriend before you walked up the aisle with him. The freedom to have sex just because you wanted to, at the time you wanted to have it, with the person you wanted to have it with. The freedom to share a home with someone without being described as "living in sin". A whole new world was emerging in London. But not over here.

Over here, the 1968 Papal Encyclical banning artificial contraception was taken seriously. Pre-marital sex was something 'nice' girls didn't do. Or if they did it, they shut up about it and prayed they wouldn't get pregnant. If their period was delayed by a couple of days, they panicked. If their period was delayed by more than a couple of days, a great dread settled on them. They could not bring themselves to go to the local chemist's shop and ask for a pregnancy testing kit, because those kits -- if the pharmacy stocked them at all -- were kept below the counter, and you couldn't be heard asking for one of them if you didn't have a ring on the fourth finger of your left hand.

If you realised you were pregnant, it was not one of today's "crisis pregnancies" surrounded by organisations ready to provide you with information, counselling and assistance. You were on your own, sister. On your own in a very bad place.

Having a baby would shame you and your family and reduce your chances of marriage -- which was a primary ambition for most women at the time -- to somewhere between slim and none.



Brazen

You could have your baby in England while ostensibly visiting a sick aunt for several months, and give it up for adoption. Or you could brazen it out and have your baby at home, making no secret of it, knowing that your child would be classified as "illegitimate". (It wasn't until much later in 1984 that Minister of State Nuala Fennell managed to get that term banned.)

Some women, married and single, got lucky. Their GP would prescribe the Pill for them. Not as a contraceptive, of course. Perish the thought. The Pill was prescribed, back then, as a way to regulate menstruation.

Girls went to their GPs, explaining how difficult it was to have periods that didn't follow any pattern, and the GPs -- if they were liberal -- would pull out the prescription pad. The girl would leave the surgery, red in the face with guilt and weak in the knees with relief: she could have sex without babies. Of course, if you had a medical complication which made it dangerous for you to take the Pill, you were goosed. No condoms were available. If you were caught bringing condoms in from England, you could be jailed. In 1971, a bunch of women ready for change, such as Nell McCafferty and June Levine, went to Belfast and brought back tote-bags full of condoms, waving them at overwhelmed customs officials and getting the issue on to the front page of the newspapers. Mary Kenny came straight off that train into the Late, Late Show studio to make the point that for the State to control the sex lives of its citizens was pretty damn weird.

And as the pressure for change built, Charlie Haughey, Minister for Health, came up with what he called "an Irish solution to an Irish problem". And his new law made condoms available.

Freely available? You're joking? Come on, this was Ireland. Under his Health (Family Planning) Act 1979 you had to have a prescription to get a condom. This kept the deal safely in the medical mode.



Display

You couldn't just pick up a condom from a display and pay for it. It would make you reckless about having a bonk. Because having a bonk for the sheer pleasure of having a bonk was so clearly immoral, it didn't bear thinking about, and embarrassing young people away from the possibility of a random bonk was the job of the State.

Never mind that the man who brought in the law -- and fair dues to him for making a start in the right direction -- was widely known to have a mistress during his years in power. That was an open secret and had nothing to do with keeping Ireland pure.

But in fact Haughey's "Irish solution" was the beginning of the end of State control of women's sexuality. Young women today will find it difficult to imagine just how rigid and terrifying the constraints around women's sexuality used to be.

And as recently as 30 years ago . . .

Opinion

Entertainment News