Bank Holiday Tuesday is now a weekly opinion column on the Student Standard, a news website based in NUI Maynooth. This post is the debut column, entitled ‘Sex and the Campus’ and originally published on the 6th of November. Bank holiday Tuesday is published every (when else) Tuesday and can be found here along with my other writing for the Standard.
University campuses: where quite a lot of us are in and around when we take our first steps into the big bad world of taking all our clothes off and touching each other. The assumption is that everyone is ridin’, everyone will ride and everyone who isn’t ridin’ wants to ride. Ireland has had a pretty staggering jolt in sexual liberty, considering it’s only been twenty years since we de criminalised homosexuality and even more recently really begun to question the role that the church plays in our lives. Maynooth is a great place to witness the fault line running through Irish society right now; two different times and spaces separated neatly by the Kilcock Road.
On the South Campus we have an old Ireland that I would argue is struggling to remain relevant in the rapid secularization and liberalization of the outside world; a conservative island set against an increasingly hostile society. Moving past the library, the difference is almost farcical. To me, happiness is the simple fact that such a vibrant and cheerful LGBT community can exist in such close proximity to a Catholic seminary. On the North campus we have the fruits of a new Ireland – cautiously patting itself down and realizing it has limbs, and eyes and ears and a body it can move around in. Shrugging off the old cloistered shames of the past there is a real optimism about where we’re going as a people. Well okay, we’re all going to Australia after graduation… BUT we will be going with a good working knowledge of our own bodies and sexualities. The contrast is magnificent and something I take great joy in: Maynooth is now is as interesting as Trinity was in 1891 or UCD was in the 1960s. Maynooth is where you can see change blooming under your feet.
This contrast of values brings me to my current thought. Recently, I heard that during last year’s sexual health week (called KISS Week that year) there were some complaints about how the Students’ Union tackles sexual health. The complaint was namely that the Union does nothing to promote abstaining from sex as a viable option for students and instead pushes condoms into our hands and promotes safe sex as the only way to avoid STIs and pregnancy. As I surveyed my own haul of free condoms (a grand total of five from the SU and one from LGBTQ’s ‘Fab Pack’), this question played on my mind: are we too in your face about this whole ridin’ business?
I decided to put on my “serious journalist face” and conduct some research. Yup – I put up a status on Facebook, asking what they thought about the college’s approach and its effectiveness. ”(There is a) SERIOUS lack of information for women who have sex with women – it’s a real problem and has only been addressed through the LGBTQ society” said Christina Murphy, who graduated from NUIM last year and is former President of the LGBTQ society. ”The only criticism I would have would be regarding the staff in the Medical Centre, who I have always felt to be quite judgemental and intimidating regarding sexual health,” said Dean MacCearaín, who had praised the SU for the free availability of condoms and easy access to sexual health advice (and is current President of LGBTQ Society… My Facebook keeps amazing company!)
An interesting point came, as such points often do, from my friend Ruth who asked for the current situation to be considered in its context. We’re moving from a time where sex was absolutely taboo and not discussed at all to a time where choice and safety are absolutely vital. We’re also living a world where AIDS is still a reality. Ruth finished by saying she “would like to see more acknowledgement of the fact that people’s level of interest in sex is so varied.” And this is where my personal experience comes in.
I’m not sexually active. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been? Does someone just come around and “switch you on” like they do the electric or gas? I’m not having sex mostly because I’m very lazy. I honestly just could not be arsed finding a person, getting my clothes off, buying condoms, putting music on and shaving my legs for a few jollies and a cuddle. As it is, I’m pretty happy with not going out of my way to do all that. It’d be just another thing to add to my list of things I need to do in a week. It’s not for any religious or spiritual reason that I refrain, nor is it from any desire to remain “pure”. I just haven’t got around to it yet. So what has my experience as an ostensibly abstinent person been?
I must say, the sexual health campaign week was a bit isolating. It just had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Condom magicians and STI information just has no use for someone who’s only major sexual relationship is with her right hand. It did play on my mind slightly, though. I did for a moment contemplate perhaps it was a bit odd that I wasn’t as interested in sex as perhaps I should be. This of course was me being, if I may use a refined phrase, a bit bullshitty about everything. It’s something that has no relevance for me right now… But just like Mass being held on South Campus in the Oratory is it having no relevance to me any reason for it not to take place?
This is my take on it. If I am ill-informed about abstinence – for instance if I don’t know oral sex “counts” as sex or whatever – I am far less likely to suffer dire consequences for my ignorance. Abstinence is refraining from an activity. You don’t need much more information or support other than “Oh, that’s grand. Well done, I guess.” However if I’m ill-informed about safe sex while practising it I could end up a) pregnant or b) very sore, itchy and potentially infertile, which I wouldn’t like. Promoting safe sex is so important because it has real, life-long implications for people’s health. Ruth made the point that ”[it] makes it clear that the educators/campaigners are sex positive and not using ‘be safe’ as a veiled ‘don’t do it’, which can’t be taken for granted in the context of sex education in schools.”
I don’t really know how you could offer abstinence as a viable option for someone. I mean fair enough if the person has decided that’s what they want but at a point in most people’s lives when their libido is peaking and they’re away from home for the first time I doubt it’s a very realistic one. I think the current Students’ Union strategy of promoting safe sex to the point of slight overkill is a far better one than the old ways of shame and secrecy. Openness and honesty about our most basic needs is what we really need to promote.
Niamh ‘Serious journalist face’ Keoghan
The Student Standard is Maynooth’s independent news source set up in 2012 by Keith Broni, current editor in chief.