Sex festival boss: 'It's about empowering people's choices'
Founder of Ireland's only sex festival Beth Wallace talks about celebrating sexuality
As founder and CEO of the annual Bliss Ireland festival, which promotes sexual freedom and pleasure in mind, body and spirit, Beth Wallace is on a mission to change Ireland's attitude to sex.
We meet in an idyllic location in south Dublin, where Beth is hosting one of the year's smaller Bliss gatherings - a 'cuddle party' and sexuality workshop.
"A cuddle party is basically a group of people getting together, it is clothes on and non-sexual, so there is no sexual touch, but it is very much about people asking for what they want in terms of touch from other people, knowing what their own boundaries are and communicating those," Beth explains as a stream of eager participants of varying ages, both men and women, arrive at the private Killiney venue.
"It's about knowing what you want in the first place, clearly expressing that and then if others transgress those boundaries, being able to say 'hang on that's not what I said you could do, so stop'," Beth adds.
"A lot of people don't know what they want in sexual situations and a lot of people don't know how to ask for what they want."
These events, Beth tells me, are about empowering people's sexual choices. There is a friendly and relaxed atmosphere ahead of the 8pm cuddle party's kick off, with many of those present greeting one another as old friends, some with a little premature cuddling.
"I was made redundant from my last job five years ago," Beth, who lives in Clonakilty, explains. "My last field of work was community development, which is a field that has had its funding reduced hugely over the last 10 years, so there were basically no jobs to be had. After about a year and a half of unemployment, I thought 'this is not what I want'. I hated twiddling my thumbs."
It was during this time that Bliss was born.
"Bliss is something that really just blossomed as an idea. Basically, it was me bringing together my nearly 30 years of academic study and professional practice in the field of sexuality and my own personal experience as an Irish woman, who has lived here for the vast majority of her life and being really intimately familiar with how sexually dysfunctional we are as a culture in many different ways," Beth says.
Beth studied applied psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy and has also worked for years as a rape and sexual assault counsellor, but it is her personal story which adds a very stark poignancy to her work in the sexuality field.
"I was born to an unmarried mother in the late 1960s in a time in Ireland when that was the greatest shame for a woman in this country," Beth tells me.
"So I lived in an orphanage for a couple of years and I was adopted out. My sister and my brother and I were all born in mother and baby homes; my brother died in one, he was buried in one of those communal graves."
"It was a small private mother and baby home in Donnybrook, a protestant one," Beth adds. "People tend to think that all of the mother and baby homes were Catholic, but they weren't."
Beth and her sister were adopted separately with neither sibling aware the other existed until they contacted the adoption agency as adults and were subsequently put in touch.
"Seeing myself in another human being for the first time was deeply moving," Beth says.
"All of the shame that was associated with sex in Ireland throughout those years, that is such a deep wound in terms of our sexuality in this country and we carry it through," Beth adds.
"Your generation doesn't carry it as much as mine does and, thankfully, it is lessening as each generation goes, but we are still carrying the vestiges of that shame, particularly in our legislation with women's reproductive rights for example."
Beth was sexually abused as a child and experienced rape as an adult woman.
"I have had to heal myself of all of those sexual dysfunctions and I am a work in progress just like everyone else, but I have travelled those paths of sexual trauma and dysfunction and I know them intimately and professionally, so the Bliss project is about creating events and spaces where people can just explore sexuality in a very free and open way.
"So, for some people, that involves healing and for some people who don't have experience of sexual trauma, it is just about having the curiosity to explore, or learning new skills and techniques and celebrating sexuality. So it's a really broad spectrum and a very healthy and open approach."
Despite the strides Ireland would appear to have made in recent years in terms of sexuality, however, Beth has run into some opponents, who have taken issue with the Bliss philosophy.
In fact, this summer, the fifth annual Bliss Festival, was the subject of such indignation, that it led to a High Court battle in Northern Ireland, when the trustees of Narrow Water Castle in Co Down stepped in to stop the event taking place in the venue due to its 'obscene' nature.
"We have run over 20 events and there have been maybe two that we had any significant difficulty with, usually with venues because they feel some sort of shame around it and they assume that it is going to be wall-to-wall orgies, which it isn't. Most of our larger events had been in the Republic of Ireland until then, but Narrow Water was different," Beth explains.
"In one way, they were unsuccessful in that the festival still happened, and in another, they were successful in that we were prevented from having access to the castle," Beth smiles. "There were protesters at the gate with religious placards. It was just so Father Ted and that's really why I wanted to have it in Northern Ireland - I wanted to shake the pot and get a conversation happening there around sexuality.
"You can go to the Bliss Festival and not see another naked body for the entire weekend if you want, but yes, there are workshops that teach people how to give a g-spot massage too.
"The people who come to the festival, they get to choose the experience they have and what they see. Nothing is imposed on anybody."
Beth is currently running monthly Women's Sexuality Salons in Belfast, west Cork and Dublin. For more information, see www.bethwallace.org. To fund the Bliss Festival or learn more see: https://www.gofundme.com/BlissFestival