A hefty new handbook aims to answer all the sex questions ever asked

A team of Irish educators has produced a ‘one-stop shop’ book of advice about sex

When did sex get this complicated? That's my first thought on opening a hefty new book for young people, produced by a team of Irish sex educators and endorsed by no less than the President, Michael D Higgins.

You’d feel for today’s teenagers who are navigating what seems to be an increasingly complex world of gender identity and sexual expression. However, human urges probably haven’t changed much over aeons, but the way we talk about them and categorise them certainly has.

Hundreds of questions that today's teenagers have and are not afraid to ask provide the framework for Sex Educated, which runs to 440 pages. It's a collaboration between author Grace Alice O'Shea (29) and five other sex educators working for the West of Ireland Sexuality Education Resource, or Wiser for short, which is a strand of the Galway-based charity Sexual Health West.

The questions range from the practical to the philosophical. “Who puts the condom on the penis?”, “Can you get pregnant if you have sex underwater?”, “Should you play music during sex?”, “Is drunk sex better?”, “How much arguing is normal in a relationship?” And a very 21st-century conundrum: “If a transgender guy is in a relationship with a cisgender girl, does that mean he is gay or heterosexual?”

Every single question that is answered in this book has been asked – anonymously or in conversation – of the Wiser staff, who run sex and relationships programmes in schools. The anonymous questions are the most important part of any sex education programme, says O'Shea, who left Sexual Health West last year to set up her own business as a sex educator and intimacy coach. "Sometimes they would be funny questions, sometimes they would be quite sad, sometimes quite worrying, but they are always such a good insight."

Over six years working with Wiser, she catalogued questions asked into a database and then arranged them thematically, which is how the nine chapters of this book arose. Mostly they are in the exact language in which they were asked by young people, setting a refreshingly conversational tone for the text, which is further lightened by Ciara Coogan's illustrations.

“The way I answered them was as if I was sitting in a class of young people; this is the language and the information I would use,” says O’Shea. While the book is written with 13- to 18-year-olds in mind, it’s also intended as a guide for parents, teachers and anybody working with youngsters.

It can be really useful for adults because the language is right there, she says, while acknowledging some have concerns about whether they should really be talking to teenagers about all the topics covered.

“I always come back to: this is what they’re asking. And if they want to know this, they have other ways of finding out, which are inaccurate and possibly harmful. So we have to give them a trustworthy way to find out the answers, or at least part of the answers.”

O’Shea reckons no other book like it has been produced in Ireland. “We call it a one-stop shop. There is nothing giving the insight into what young people are asking on the ground like this. This is 30 years of sex ed in Ireland poured into a book,” she says, referring to the quantity of experience accumulated by the compilation team. They hope it will help today’s parents do a better job of nurturing healthy and responsible attitudes to sex among their offspring than previous generations.

“The history in Ireland around sex is dark; it’s intergenerational shame that has been passed down unintentionally,” says O’Shea. We are not going to just shrug it off and become 100 per cent sex positive; we need to be patient with that process.

Her mother was told by a nun at school that if she enjoyed sex, it was a sin. While most Irish young people don’t grow up with that message now, “they are growing up with their own issues around sexuality, where there is so much misinformation and online pornography, which is terrible sex education. There is so much misinformation, they have a sea of that to work through.”

O'Shea thinks for some people the definition of sex positivity is somebody like the Samantha Jones character in Sex and the City, who liked frequent sex with a variety of partners. Sex positive is an attitude not a behaviour, she stresses, and you could be sex positive but celibate. Our attitude to sex "is going to be so linked to how we view ourselves as humans, our worthiness, our relationships and our connections".

O’Shea is usually the one doing the answering, but here are six questions for her:

1) Is the message of the book that anything goes, as long as it is done with consent and respect?

“Kind of. It gives factual information but it is rooted in empathy and inclusivity and kindness and open-mindedness. That is so important, not just about sex but everything in life. As long as everyone is fully and happily consenting, it is really not our place to say how people experience and express sexuality.

“Our aim was to inform and empower young people, or whoever is educating them, but also to comfort them and to make them supported and feel less alone. I remember saying at the beginning I want the book to feel like a hug – that I’m not alone, other people are asking this and going through this.

“I needed this book when I was a teenager and that is what a lot of people are saying who are older reading it, ‘I wish I had this’.”

2) People’s sexual behaviour may not be anybody else’s business, yet do adolescents need to hear about it, to help normalise their own sexuality?

“Talking more openly about sex is fantastic but the key is to tackle the shaming around sex. It’s all very well sharing things but if they are going to be shamed for it, then that doesn’t incentivise other people to share.”

“When we bring information like this in the book out into the light, it is harder for shame to grow around those topics when we’re saying ‘Here it is, let’s talk about it. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable but let’s talk about it.’”

3) Do you think it is always going to be difficult for parents to talk to their children about sex, or will future generations be cool about it?

“I don’t think the discomfort will ever fully go. Part of our instinct is to protect our children, so any mention of sex may start alarm bells. My absolute hope for Ireland is that we move past the shame that has been here for decades. We have moved past quite a bit of it but we just have to keep going.”

Shame is almost always at the heart of her adult clients’ issues. Whether it’s body image, erectile dysfunction or pain during sex, “the issue itself of course is valid and has to be addressed but it’s the shame circling it that is really doing the harm and stops people reaching out and looking for help”.

“I don’t believe this shame has gone because we’re living in a better Ireland. I think it is still here because shame adapts. The battle against it is going to be ongoing.”

4) Are you concerned that young people go to easily available porn for sex education?

“The use of porn as a sex education tool definitely does concern me. I think porn is a really complex topic. The message [we give] over and over again is, this is not real life; this is not how sex looks; this is not how a lot of bodies look. You don’t see consent, protection, intimacy, laughter, mistakes, funny moments, awkward moments. It is so unrealistic.

“We can say it’s unrealistic over and over, and hopefully young people will hear that, but the reason I think a lot of young people are turning to porn for sex education is because they are not getting it elsewhere.

“Even with a good sex education programme, the  natural curiosity of developing sexual beings means they will probably still look up porn. At least if they have comprehensive and sex positive education, they have the knowledge: ‘Oh that’s not real’; ‘They’re not using condoms’; ‘They’re not communicating’ – hopefully they will have that literacy.

“I totally understand the fear around porn but I think we need to pour more attention into good-quality sex education – having those little talks from a young age.”

5) Are teenagers better off getting sex education from a neutral third party rather than their parents?

“I think they need both. The multi-layered approach is best, as with most education. The primary educators are the parents. I do think schools feel they have to cover all of this and get external organisations to come in. That can be really useful, because in my experience they will be a lot quicker to ask me a question than their religion teacher.

“They really don’t hold back with people like me – who am I to them? I have no connection to them whatsoever. It’s important that they have those safe spaces where they can ask an expert but it’s also still important to have openness with teachers and parents, or at least emulating that kindness and sex positivity. Then they are getting it from multiple sources rather than just one ‘tick the box’ sex talk, because that’s not enough.”

6) Are we tying ourselves up in knots with the contemporary array of gender and sexuality labels?

“Humans always complicate things and humans love labelling. When we label something, it gives us a sense that we understand it better. If we understand something better, there is less to fear from it.

“If I see a man and he’s wearing a bit of make-up and nail polish and I can think straight away ‘he’s gay’, that is so much less work for my brain. My brain has filed him away as gay; I understand what he is, I don’t need to think about him any more. But I don’t need to file him as anything – I can just let him wear his nail polish.

“I would always say that sexuality is so, so fluid. We can be attracted to people romantically, attracted to people sexually and we can be attracted to people and don’t quite know why, we just want to be around them. It is not necessarily something we need to label.

“Some people find labels very affirming; it gives them a sense of identity and community. Then a lot of people don’t want to label their sexuality because whose business is it, why does it matter?”

O’Shea is moving out of Galway soon and returning to her native Co Kerry. She is preparing for the usual reactions of either awkwardness or fascination when new neighbours ask what line of work she’s in.

Her own experiences “lit a passion for talking about this stuff”, she explains. “I had a condition called vaginismus. There was so little support and help for me. It was such a dark time of my life; I thought I was broken and alone.

“I had to go the US to receive treatment, which was very successful thankfully. But I went through the teens with that and, as a result, had very low self-esteem and unfortunately was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship quite young. Thankfully my life is completely different now.”

She “stumbled” into sex education when doing a master’s in sexual health promotion and a placement with Sexual Health West. “It feels like a calling to me. I am so, so passionate about it.” But she knows not everybody approves.

“You are very aware that there are people out there who think what you do is wrong. I have come across negative attitudes but it is definitely in the minority. Generally people are very interested and very open-minded. Even my dad. He is a Kerry man. He is still so proud of me – and tells people, in a roundabout way, what I do. So that’s nice!”

– Sex Educated, by Grace Alice O'Shea (Tribes Press) is available from sexualhealthwest.ie and in Galway at both Dubray Book Shop and Charlie Byrne's Book Shop

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