With Ireland’s first sex festival taking place in Dublin on February 25th, Hanna-lil Malone explores Ireland’s increasingly confident view of sexuality.

Next week Ireland will host its first sex festival. What is a sex festival, you may rightly ask? ‘Bliss Festival’ is a one-day sex, sexuality and sexual health festival/conference, taking place in Dublin. The event is the first of its kind to take place in Ireland, or, as far as the organisers are aware, anywhere. According to chief organiser, Beth Wallace, Bliss is a new concept, for the first time combining sexual health, sexual freedom, and sexual pleasure workshops into one event,  “in a way that isn’t salacious, isn’t sleazy. It’s mature, and it’s grown a lot. It’s yes adults have sex, most adults have sexual relationships, so let’s talk about that in a grown-up way.”

Past discussions of sexuality in Ireland have traditionally been dominated by the Catholic Church, but an event such as this offers further proof that this is becoming less and less of an issue.  According to UCD Sociology Professor Tom Inglis, the festival does not mark a new watershed but is instead the continuation of a drawn-out process that has been occurring on and off for the last thirty years. “Sex as an end in itself, independent of love and romance and independent of religion, represents a huge transformation in Irish culture,” but this process has been occurring “gradually through the west in the twentieth century and reached into Ireland maybe a bit later and maybe a bit slower.”

Over the course of the twentieth century a transformation occurred in sex and its role in society. According to Inglis, three changes in particular altered the way in which sex was viewed by many cultures, particularly in the west. The first was the explosion of love and sexuality, and the sexualisation of romance. Inglis states that “being sexual, having sex became part and parcel of being romantic or being attracted to somebody and of developing a relationship.” Within these relationships sex began to be eroticised; pursued as an end in itself, “sex for pure enjoyment, as a sensual experience began to be recognised as legitimate.” And thirdly, the exploration of this sexual experience became separated from love and from romance, being seen not only as morally acceptable, but “something that can be pursued as an interest and a pleasure in much the same way perhaps as one might engage in sport or one might go to an art gallery or pursue music and literature.”

There was no defining moment when this great change of views on sex and sexuality occurred in Ireland, rather there was a gradual move towards less strict norms on sex and sexuality. Inglis points to the arrival of contraception in Ireland in the 1970s and the breaking of the Church’s monopoly over morality as important steps, but also warns that the role of the Internet could prove to be an even more significant and liberalising force in the long term.

Nevertheless, there is still a stereotypical view of Irish people viewing their sexual culture as slightly more repressed then the rest of the Western world, perhaps a remnant from the days when the Church’s sexual morality was imposed with a strict hand. Despite continuing to view ourselves as behind the times, over the past twenty years Irish sexual habits have begun to mirror those of our European neighbours. According to Inglis, “when it comes to age of first sex, number of sexual partners or frequency of sex, we may have been different up until the 1990s but there has been a slow approximation towards the European norm.” Although there are still some statistical differences in terms of the number of partners and other sexual practices, Ireland is not significantly dissimilar from the rest of the west. Wallace concurs, stating that “we think we’re far behind the social mores and cultural acceptability of other countries, but I’m actually not so sure that we are.”

It is this uncertainty regarding Irish sexual norms that Wallace hopes to explore throughout the festival, essentially offering curious parties a safe way to “dip their toes into the variety of different practices and therapies that can help make sex both safe and enjoyable.” Public displays of sexual practices often bring to mind the seedier representation of sex created by the adult entertainment industry, along with the accompanying pressures to define oneself through the prism of sexual prowess. However, Wallace believes that Bliss can help with this, fostering a more confident and informed approach to sex achieved through discourse, rather than a preoccupation with the physical act itself.