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Nov 2015 by PCI College

Sexuality and Psychotherapy: Embracing the Revolution

Antoinette Stanbridge opens a discussion on sexuality and psychotherapy and encourages all therapists to embrace the sexual revolution of recent years in Ireland and to get comfortable with "the intricacies of this most essential human experience".

Sexuality is recognised as a central driving force in human nature since the dawn of talk therapy over one hundred years ago.  Both Freud and Darwin highlighted this primary motivator as an accelerant to many of our actions, and were heavily criticised by the reigning establishment for their attempts to illuminate the intricacies of this most essential human experience.

Sometimes I wonder if in an Irish therapeutic setting, we maintain a certain coyness on this topic, which would be unsurprising given our chequered history with matters sexual. Irish sociologist Tom Inglis wrote in 2005:

Most of the recent grand histories, however, have avoided dealing with sex and sexuality directly and have focused instead on such issues as censorship, the multi-faceted role of the Catholic church, fertility control, and, more recently, the sex-abuse scandal involving the Catholic church. (2005, p.1)

Counselling and psychotherapy literature appears to focus almost exclusively on what happens when there is an aberration, a perceived dysfunction, or an abuse. Sex education in schools tends to cluster around matters of reproduction, and how to avoid it.

Many will recall how in 1971 a few brave and determined Irish women, very publicly brought contraband contraceptives across the border; prior to 1985, it was impossible to purchase a condom without a prescription, and many of us will remember the frivolity with which the landmark censorship ban on ‘Playboy’ magazine was lifted in 1995. Up until that point, viewing pornography was considered unacceptable as a mainstream activity.

These last few months have celebrated the ‘Yes Equality’ vote, the bill on Transgender rights has been passed and some updated thinking about Ireland’s commercial sex industry is currently under review in the Seanad. Not only have we explicitly stated to an international community that our attitudes have changed, but we have done so in the blink of a single generation. It would be reasonable to assume that as a natural trajectory of this evolution, we are more comfortable with our sexuality and well equipped to talk about it. However the legacy of very subtle social controls imposed by both church and state still survive, whether or not these are explicitly acknowledged. We are yet persuaded, often by the media, that our sexuality is a comodifiable asset, orgasm is something to be ‘achieved’, and sexual expectations beyond a certain life stage relegated to ‘reported sighting’ or missing in action.

Sex can be a great resource and joy as well as being a source of distress and isolation. Never before in our history have so many options been available and easily obtained, often requiring little or no investment. Our society has changed dramatically, but we are still the same species that Freud and Darwin were attempting to describe many years ago.

For many therapists, sexuality, especially the everyday stuff, can be an uncomfortable issue.  Many are reluctant to acknowledge it in the therapeutic space as other than a box ticking exercise. Little time is spent talking about the ordinary everyday pleasures, intense joys and woes that comprise an individual’s personal sexual narrative.

This may stem from our being unsure of our ability to hold a boundary, or being perceived as intrusive by a client, or we might simply feel that we don’t know enough, that we don’t have sufficient information or education. Many therapists consequently feel that matters sexual are outside their range of competence and feel to need to refer to a specialist.

Our sexuality is an everyday part of being human and is an essential component of many of our interactions. Whether as a consequence of distress or delight, it’s time to unapologetically embrace in the therapeutic space what could be referred to in Irish terms as, a fairly successful revolution.


Antoinette Stanbridge, MIACP

PCI College Lecturer and Middlesex University Link Tutor


Inglis, T. (2005) Origins and legacies of Irish prudery: Sexuality and social control in modern Ireland. Ireland: Irish American Cultural Institute.

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