herald

Monday 23 October 2017

sex: from for bidden fruit to guilt-free fulfilment

We've come a long way in a short time, but has our sex-obsessed world lost sight of what is good sex, or did we ever really know?

One morning in 1981 a flutter went round a Dublin secondary school. Someone had found a clitoris, albeit on page 61 of the biology book. It was nothing short of a miracle that the clitoris was mentioned in our biology book because some of us still had versions of the Merchant of Venice where entire quartets had been excised because of the mention of a codpiece. The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort's purely functional sex manual, recommended the world over by doctors, had been banned in Ireland since 1974 on the grounds of indecency and obscenity, a ban that would be renewed in 1987 "out of concern for adolescents".

A lot of schools and families did not provide much, if any, sex education. Ignorance was so revered that many a poor girl arrived at menarche in great distress with no clue why they were suddenly bleeding from the banned area that was "down there".

Sex education was limited to an instruction not to do it, amended in progressive circles to "when a man and a woman love each other very much…".

The horror of all things sex was not limited to teenagers. The ban on contraception was only lifted in 1980, and then only under very limited circumstances. Condoms were permitted on prescription. Women who wished to be sterilised, even if having more children might be dangerous for them, had to go before a hospital board. Often all-male, usually containing religious, it was they who would decide if she was permitted, or more often not permitted, to end her fertility.

lust

The general sense was that sex was shameful and sinful, contraception was for people who wanted to do it for fun (which would be lust). The Joy of Sex wasn't just deemed obscene because of its illustrations, it was obscene because it spoke of sex as pleasure rather than demographic duty. The shift in doctrine heralded by Pope Paul VI's in Humanae Vitae in 1968 - an official RC OK to natural family planning methods that made sexual desire within marriage acceptable - took decades to filter down.

The change has been radical and remarkably swift. Porn is endemic, few of today's 13-year-olds have any doubt what a clitoris is. Condoms are on sale in supermarkets, there are sex shops all over the country, the best-selling novels of the last few years have been about bondage and lesbian prison drama Orange is the New Black has just been nominated for a host of awards.

Perhaps if we focused more on education about good sex we could better counteract the effects of porn, risky behaviour and sexual health. Good sex is related to pleasure, but inherent in that is consent, knowledge, confidence, respect, equality and relaxation. Bad sex is about coercion, ignorance, objectification, risk to physical, mental and emotional health. People who have suffered non-consensual sex often become promiscuous in an attempt to take control of their sexuality.

Outlining the good things makes the bad clearer too. The Irish Family Planning Association runs an eight-week course for parents on how to talk to their children called Speakeasy. "Good comprehensive sex education should not be restricted to the biological aspects of sex and reproduction but should also look at issues such as relationships, consent, attitudes towards sexuality, gender and how to deal with social pressures to be sexually active," says training and development manager Anita Ghafoor-Butt. "It should allow people to develop important life skills needed to make informed choices, enhance their self-esteem and build healthy relationships based on respect and responsibility."

Sexual health educators in Ireland will comment that in teaching parents to talk to their children about sex they have first to educate the parents about the basics of the system. It's not surprising when the emphasis is on not getting pregnant or catching a disease; the menstrual cycle is not just about periods and pregnancy, it's a complex system regulating the very essence of womanhood.

A menstrual cycle is averaged at 28 days, but anything from 23 to 35 days is considered normal. Broadly speaking, it falls into three phases - menstrual, follicular and luteal.

Day one is the first day of the period which is in itself very different for each woman. Alternatively viewed throughout history as a cleansing phase and a time of extreme filth, the menstrual phase prepares for each new cycle by emptying the endometrium (womb lining) of blood built up to support a possible pregnancy.

During the follicular phase, a follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) prompts the ovary to mature and sprout a follicle, which secretes oestrogen. The oestrogen levels build, peak and turn the FSH off at which point luteinising hormone takes over causing ovulation, when the egg leaves the ovary via the fallopian tube.

Meanwhile, progesterone is causing the endometrium to fill with blood in case the travelling egg is fertilised. If it is and the egg implants, pregnancy occurs and the cycle is switched off, usually but not 100pc reliably, until after the woman stops breast feeding. If pregnancy does not occur, all hormone levels drop and the cycle begins again.

That's the technical stuff, but the side-effects and by-products of all the hormonal changes are remarkable too.

The female body's main focus does seem to be on reproduction, but even if pregnancy is not a desired outcome there's no reason not to tap into the good stuff.

Although the menstrual phase is regarded as a time of rest and rejuvenation, energy levels start rising swiftly and many women find increased libido during their period. Although it's not entirely clear why, it is thought it might relate to lack of fear of getting pregnant and that pelvic congestion might increase feelings of arousal. Plus orgasm helps with cramps.

Libido is generally accepted to be highest mid-cycle, at ovulation. The hormones also mean glowing skin, higher energy and the pheromones work near magic on men.

There is research from Sweden too, suggesting that a woman's immune system is at its strongest around ovulation in order to be at optimum health for conception. The by-product of this is that surgery, vaccines and other treatments are less harmful to the system at ovulation time.

Immediately after that libido and immunity start to decline so, it is thought, that the body will not fight sperm or fertilised eggs. Pre-menstrual women are more affected by alcohol than ovulating women, and yeast infections and chlamydia are more likely to strike between ovulation and period.

fallacy

At certain times in the cycle, orgasm is easier to achieve. There was and perhaps remains a notion abroad that a woman could not get pregnant if she had not had an orgasm. This conveniently excused rape on occasion - she must have enjoyed it - but is a complete fallacy: pregnancy can occur in the most awful of circumstances. However, it is thought - though not proven - that orgasm can heighten the chances of conception. One theory is that a satiated woman is more likely to lie still and thus facilitate conception; the other is that the contractions of orgasm increase the chances of conception.

Neither is proven, and given that at least 70pc of women do not orgasm during vaginal sex alone, it's clearly not a prerequisite for conception.

Some people believe that there is only one kind of female orgasm and that the g-spot does not exist. Other people, especially those who have found their own or someone else's g-spot, are quite certain it does. In Orange is the New Black the lesbian women had to explain to the straight ones exactly what the different bits were for and how they are put to best use.

It makes sense that women would know best how to pleasure women, and if that doesn't float your boat, masturbation is the key to learning about your sexual self. Remarkably, sex educators will say that they meet parents who do not believe women can masturbate, but there is a lot of religious baggage around masturbation for both genders.

Hindus believe that seeking kama - sensual pleasures - is one of the four main objectives of life. Celibates must abstain, but otherwise go for it - the kama sutra even gives tips on masturbation, suggesting men "churn your instrument with a lion's pounce".

Buddhists regard guilt and self-disgust as more harmful to spiritual well-being than masturbation, with the exception of monks and nuns who have taken a vow of chastity.

Jews cannot "waste seed", which means no masturbation for men, but there's no mention of it either way for women.

Islam is against it but considers it a slightly lesser evil than extra-marital sex.

The Catholic Church accepts it can be normal but still considers it a "an intrinsically and seriously disordered act".

Anyone who feels it's their own business could do a lot worse than look up the Ann Summers website which has a very detailed sex toy explainer, and just looking at the range on offer will open eyes and minds to all kinds of possibilities.

Sex is an ongoing learning experience, full of potential, 
and as Paul Joannides, veteran sex educator in the US, says: "The willingness to ask and learn from your partner is often what separates the good lovers from those who are totally forgettable."

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