Decoding the Irish person’s unique ability to discuss sexual matters in sex therapy without actually using any correct or direct sex-related terminology is somewhat of a minefield. It is a skill I have developed over the years, listening and talking to clients behind the therapy room door about their private matters. This unique ability makes for engaging, curious, and sometimes confusing conversations in early therapy sessions.
Is this a cultural phenomenon unique to Ireland? I don’t know, but thankfully there is much healing, learning and humour in sex therapy, and the Irish people love a good laugh. Nothing breaks the ice like a bit of humour when it comes to awkward and uncomfortable conversations about sex.
My role as a therapist is to make that right and the experience easier for everyone coming to therapy, removing the censorship filter for open, authentic conversations about such private matters. It’s not just about the language, though, it is also linked to how we learned to talk about sex and our bodies and the limitations placed on our thinking and mindset about sexuality that is part of the problem.
‘I don’t know how to say this without being rude…’
We are, it appears, experts in sexual analogies and metaphors, and the older you are, the more diverse the references, some of which I quote throughout this article. Thankfully talking to a sex therapist is not always serious and clinical, and there is much healing and learning in humor in sex therapy.
‘It’s too embarrassing to talk about, I feel so alone, we never talked about this stuff.’
As a culture, I suspect we have made talking about sexual things far more complicated than it needs to be! What is this phenomenon, you ask? Well, it’s down to several factors that are essentially not your fault, including inadequate sex education, parenting styles, religion, culture and a society that struggles on many levels to promote sex positivity, sexual health and sexual well-being.
‘I heard not all women can have orgasms, I’m just one of those, I don’t feel anything down there’.
We are, however, excellent at finding ways around this transgenerational awkwardness and shame and feel more comfortable using analogies, metaphors, humour, winks, nudges, body language, joking about sex, air quotes, and using slang or code words to get the points and experiences across.
And do you know what? It works every time, but talking about sex shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be this complicated. Many of these traits and attitudes are learned coming in childhood and adolescence, passed down through generations from parents and caregivers.
You might like to read... [The A to Z of Sexual Words & Terms for Straight-Forward Conversations]
‘I’m not a prude or anything; I just don’t know how to say this..’
In Irish society, open, unashamed straight-talking sex talk is still taboo, and in the therapy room, sometimes it feels like being in a game of charades, particularly with those clients over forty. It appears many are not comfortable, experienced or educated enough when it comes to discussing sexual matters or being able to verbalise many parts of the reproductive body without feeling embarrassment, shame, and, in some cases, disgust.
‘I could never touch myself, only my partner does that.’
Hey, I’ve been there; that was me once! It can develop with maturity, education, age, and awareness – and it can get easier. We each have an essential role in normalising discussing sexual functioning and sexuality for the next generation. There does come a time when individuals experiencing sexual problems benefit greatly from learning to use the correct terminology; in fact, it is essential.
‘Masturbation is only for men, everyone says they need it more.’
Why? Because sexology is not just about the act of sex. It is far more diverse than that relating to sexual problems, sexuality, gender, abuse, trauma, concerns, functioning, anatomy, physiology, hormones, reproduction, fertility conditions, disability, medication, consent, attitudes and behaviours.
‘I’m afraid to look down there, God, I don’t even know if I could.’
So you can see there are many diverse and complex reasons men and women may come to psychosexual therapy or need to talk about sexual health with a health clinician. It also translates into better partner communication, creating a new norm for deeper, more intimate dialogue. Less reading between the lines and unspoken words. Just straight-talking terminology that makes everyone’s sex life… more straightforward.
‘Put it like this, f I got an NCT, I’d fail.’
I have written The A to Z of Sexual Words & Terms for Straight-Forward Conversations for talking about sexual problems that I hope will be helpful. In fact, the idea came to me recently after a conversation about erectile dysfunction with a client who couldn’t get the words out, not because he didn’t have the capacity because he was a great talker, but rather because he simply didn’t have the correct terminology and it was the first time talking about these things. He found it easier to explain the problem when referring to sex acts as a three-course meal, but dessert never arrived. Yes, we both did get confused, but using the correct terminology resolved that confusion.
‘I was always told it’s dirty down there, shameful, and sex is dirty – I don’t know how to get over these thoughts and feelings.’
Getting comfortable reading and using the correct terminology and vocab evokes awareness making conversations easier with partners, medical professionals, and therapists.
Here are a few Irish phrases you might recognize that are common phrases I hear in sex therapy – down there, downstairs, that place, below, it, there, undercarriage, time of the month, in the bedroom, horn, bonnet, behind closed doors, privates, back lane, bits and bobs, meat and two veg.
‘When it comes to the main course, I seem to lose my appetite.’
Many men find it easier to describe transport vehicles and engines instead of talking about their sex drive and performance issues – ‘It’s like I’m running out of oil‘ and ‘I think my mileage is too high. I’m out of breath.’ Or sport – ‘I couldn’t get it over the line‘ and ‘the odds are stacked against me‘.
‘I could never use one of those (a tampon); what if it gets lost way up there.’
Eventually, together in therapy, we get to the point of the matter with encouragement and correct terminology and reframing. One of the first steps in addressing sexual issues is learning to use the appropriate language and to begin to normalise the simple fact that we are all sexual beings, and sexuality and sexology are a part of us, and it is 100% okay to talk about this aspect of yourself.
‘I would rather die than have to buy that (lubricant) at a store checkout.’
Sexual conditions and concerns affect both partners in a relationship of course. There are often clients who come into therapy to talk about a partner’s problems and their impact on them. And, to learn how to better support and communicate with them, particularly when they are avoiding addressing their problem or in denial.
‘I’d be embarrassed to ask the doctor to look under the hood if you know what I mean.’
As a Psychotherapist working with sexual problems for many years now, thankfully, I have learned to read between these blurred, unsaid words, unspoken rules, facial expressions, body language, and pauses and decode much of what clients are really trying to say, then prompting and helping clients to express what they want to express moving beyond embarrassment, humiliation and shame. And yes, we even use diagrams and visual tools and aids. That is what contemporary sex-positive psychosexual therapy is about. I call it sexual self-development, and it can start at any age and stage through adulthood, and it is appropriate for every age and stage because our bodies are always changing and ageing.
‘I can’t seem to get her over the line; you know, a touchdown.’
Many choose to use slang words when discussing sexual functioning and the reproductive organs, this feels more comfortable and less vulnerable than using anatomically correct words, but the more significant majority of people continue to use the terminology learned from caregivers in childhood and adolescents to identify their part of the body associated with sex that is no longer age appropriate to them in the present.
‘I can score an own goal, but when it comes to the big match, I get too anxious.’
A positive aspect of being in therapy is the empowering feeling of beginning to use correct, positive and accurate language and then bringing this new confidence into their intimate relationships.
I can’t even bring myself to say that (vagina), word it feels so wrong.’
The A – Z of sexual words and terms for straightforward conversations is not a dictionary. It is a short simple reference to anatomically correct terminology and words you can use to identify and express yourself on sexual topics, sexual functioning, anatomy, and associated topics. I say almost as it remains a work in progress. To keep this reference simple, I have not strayed into fetishism, kinks, disorders or paraphilia terminology.
‘I don’t feel like a real man if you know… I can’t get it up, so I just avoid intimacy now.’
Take a read and use it in your conversations about sex, intimacy, sexual functioning, sexual concerns or OBGYN problems. The more comfortable you get with the words and language, the more confident you will become talking to your doctor, OB-GYN, psychosexual therapist and partner.
‘I don’t know what’s going on downstairs. It’s too embarrassing to talk about.’
I have sifted through the literature to identify the common and relevant words A to Z terms for sexual problems that may be useful to you. These range from body organs, the sexual response cycle, and sexual function, to the language of respect and consent. You can read it here.
‘My wife went through the change, she said she had women’s issues down below that men don’t understand. We don’t even hug anymore.’
All the quotes I am using in this article reflect the quiet voices of men and women in sex therapy. They show how disempowered Irish people are when it comes to articulating sexual health problems and the challenges they face with how they think about sexuality.
We are always growing, changing, learning and maturing, and that can include how you feel about your sexual self. Straight-talking sexual awareness and language are for everybody.