Unravelling the relationship of sex and shame

Cillian Walsh discusses the importance of sexual positivity in conversation with holistic sex therapist Jenny Keane

Despite sex being such a common pleasure for many, it isn’t always the most comfortable of topics to discuss openly. This is especially true if you grew up in Ireland, despite sex being a natural human impulse. From a young age this hush-hush attitude surrounding sex only impairs us from further discovering its powers by attaching feelings of guilt and shame around our sexuality. Whether we like it or not, an active air of silence lingers to avoid judgement from others on what is one of the most personal aspects of ourselves, which in turn only isolates people further. When one experiences sexual issues or questions sexuality, a perception of intolerance results in deep feelings going unacknowledged, and eventually people feel compelled to silence, dealing with their issues alone.

Sex is one of our innate human desires. But what happens if you live in a culture that neglects your sexuality? Worryingly, many people learn very little about sex in school or at home.

“Keane bestowed her advice to students in the hope that we can begin to take a more open approach to this core topic.”

Trinity News spoke to Jenny Keane, an Irish holistic sex educator who hopes to combat this by actively creating open and authentic conversations surrounding topics such as self-pleasure, sexual well-being and exploration. Known for her engaging workshops, she uses her knowledge and experience to help people connect more with themselves and their bodies. Keane bestowed her advice to students in the hope that we can begin to take a more open approach to this core topic.

There are two main approaches to sexual education according to Keane: fear-based and pleasure-based. Unfortunately for us, Irish culture seems to fall into the category of fear. The fear-based approach is centred on risk; be it the risk of catching an STI, or the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. The underlying emotions at play here are fear, giving impressionable youth the impression that sex will ruin your life. The underlying message in our culture today is to avoid sex, be scared of sex and know that in your lust and desires, there is something inherently wrong. There is no direct acknowledgement of how to handle sexual issues or deal with risks in choosing a partner.

However, countries like the Netherlands seem to take a different approach to sex, opting for a pleasure-based view instead. In a positive environment there is a lot more awareness around sexual skills, such as negotiation and empathy. Keane highlights that ”what empathy does is it allows you to understand another person and the harm that your words could cause to another person.” Delving into the importance of emotional awareness when it comes to sex, Keane says: “It’s really important to be able to look at the whole human and see that we aren’t just the physical body; we are emotional, we are social.” This approach helps in turn to create a welcoming, understanding society where people feel comfortable in discussing their sexual desires without the stigma or shame that so commonly goes hand in hand with chatting about sex.

“We all avoid things that we find uncomfortable, in turn undermining our own fears around sex and intimacy as there are no solutions given by anyone to us growing up.”

Keane opens a much-needed conversation about sex through the work that she does on both social media and in her workshops. Lack of awareness and stigma against our sexuality means that people don’t even know their options in a lot of situations; as Keane observes: “ [with] no options, we discount whatever it is that we’re feeling because we don’t know how to solve it.” This is a natural human tendency. We all avoid things that we find uncomfortable, in turn undermining our own fears around sex and intimacy as there are no solutions given by anyone to us growing up.

Keane emphasises the reality of Ireland’s sex education as largely fear-based, focusing on inducing fear rather than the actual interaction between people and how to feel pleasure, which involves many valuable skills we neglect to teach. “Sex is all about skills,” she says, and these skills are crucial for a “great sex life.” She continues: “It is not something that we are born with. Communication is not something that we are born knowing how to do. We have to learn those skills. And when we learn those skills, we learn how to apply those skills effectively.”

The nature of how sex is taught and approached in education continues to be a controversial issue. In many countries, the roots of sexual education are firmly stemmed from religious institutions. As is quite clearly the case in Ireland, this approach is often grounded in fear. There is never any acknowledgement or acceptance of having sex for recreation, which in an era of contraceptives and rapid STI testing is simply anachronistic. Instead, sexual education received in our younger years completely neglects the rise in sexual positivity in the world we are living in. Ireland is, unfortunately, failing to change and adapt with the times.

What makes Keane’s workshops so insightful is her candid approach to sex; she thinks of sex in terms of sexual practices, and she teaches this amongst other vital lessons in her workshops. She says: “It’s up to the individual to engage in practice. Nobody is taught how to have sex. We all have innate sexual desires, but how we deal with them is something we are taught.” When we completely neglect to talk about these topics openly, we interpret sexual messages wrong.

Finally, Keane emphasises the importance of acknowledging your sexual self as much as your emotional and mental states. She spoke about how in times of emotional or mental stress, “from something as simple as exam season”, the sexual self may experience a lower libido. Keane elaborates: “This is completely natural as your sexual energy is moved elsewhere. This simple fact combined with the inability to express this feeling can lead people to isolate themselves and internalize their issues as something wrong with them.” Think to yourself, are your friends feeling the same way? These feelings are entirely normal, and it is vital that we address them in open conversation if we are to move towards a pleasure-based approach to sex.