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A View North: The sex-occupied counties of N.I.

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Northern Ireland is often referred to as the “six occupied counties.” Well, now we know what it is that occupies them. A recent sex survey, the results of which appeared in The Irish Times, shows that the average adult north of the border makes love 125 times each year, compared to Southerners, who are only able for it 122 times a year. As well, Northerners last longer (we all knew that anyway). It takes us 21.6 minutes to pay homage at the temple of Venus, while down south, their average visit lasts a mere 20.4 minutes.

It makes a refreshing change to read something about Northern Ireland that has nothing to do with decommissioning or the peace process. Or maybe it has — now that we are not making war, we are perfecting our love-making skills. Perhaps at long last we have caught up with that venerable old slogan from the 1960s: Make Love, Not War.

It is about time. Until now, Ulster did not have much to do with Eros or Venus, and more to do with Mars. Indeed, the only vaguely sexual joke I can remember from my childhood was based on a dialectical peculiarity of Belfast English.

“What do you do about sex?” the pollster asks the Belfast housewife.

“Take me tay,” she replies, mistaking as Belfast people are wont to one vowel (e) for another (i).

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Though the survey deals only with the number and duration of sexual encounters, and says nothing about their quality, it gives one hope that attitudes toward sex and sexuality are changing in the dour North. When I returned to live in Belfast in 1991, I was struck by how proud the locals were of what they saw as their high moral standards. It was curious because it was in the middle of a campaign of sectarian murder and car bombings. But still one lady wrote to the News Letter concerned not about the slaughter going on around her but the opening of a Brook Clinic to advise women on birth control. She opined that the establishment of the clinic “represents a concerted attempt not only to introduce abortion through the back door but also to bring Northern Ireland’s high standards of moral behavior down to the level of apostate England . . .”

On Aug. 31, five days before this letter appeared, a 57-year-old Catholic who worked in a Chinese take-out was lured to an address by a bogus call and murdered. On Sept. 3, a Catholic working for the city council was murdered at his work place. A week later, the IRA murdered a Protestant at his home on the Donegall Road. Even though worse followed, the News Letter reader could still talk about the high moral standards of Northern Ireland in contrast to those of “apostate” England. What she meant, of course, was a sexual morality based on “self-control” — the pre-Freudian word for repression, which was still in vogue in Northern Ireland at the time and maybe still is, for all I know.

I was so amused by this double-standard that I wrote a column for the Irish News drawing attention to it. Blotsky, the Belfast cartoonist, illustrated it with a drawing of an angry middle-aged couple leaning out of a window late at night shaking their fists and shouting “Disgusting” at a young man and woman who are making love in an alleyway. Meanwhile, directly under their window but ignored, a group of thugs is beating a man with baseball bats.

The column and the accompanying cartoon struck a raw nerve. The Irish News was deluged by letters of protest. One wrote: “Only a fool would not admit that Northern Ireland has higher standards than those of England, where the abuse of children is rampant and an abortion takes place every three minutes.” This letter appeared on Sept. 18. In the days immediately before and after it was published, three people were murdered by paramilitary gangs who claimed to have some support within their communities. Yet Northern Ireland’s high moral standards still prevailed over those of lowly degenerate England.

Of course, the reference to the amount of child abuse in England came before the flood of sex-abuse scandals involving Irish priests and brothers. It is doubtful if anyone, even an Irish News reader, would now be comfortable patting himself on the back about Ireland’s superiority in this regard.

The column moved one Irish News reader, who signed herself “A Mother,” to write: “What I am concerned with is your promotion of sex outside marriage. . . . Because everybody knows — and some to their cost when it is too late — that once sex is introduced to a friendship that romance is dead and respect with it. So where is love then?” “A Mother” came to the curious, if not contradictory, conclusion that “pre-marital sex is a major cause of break-ups in marriage.” Another reader denounced our efforts to point out the contradiction between having high moral standards while tolerating a vicious sectarian murder campaign in your midst as “smart-alecky rubbish”.

But this was just the beginning. From then on and for the next nine months or so that I wrote the column for the Irish News, it was regularly greeted not only with angry letters but telephone calls from crying nuns demanding that it be stopped right away. Things became worse when I speculated how the sex lives of the Irish as well as their cuisine would have been immeasurably improved had our conquerors been French and not British. Irish News readers didn’t see the humor of that at all.

It was ironic that at the very time these expressions of outrage were being made, the sexual mores which they purported to defend had almost vanished from whole areas of Belfast. In working-class neighborhoods, the churches were half-empty on a Sunday and it was a common sight to see unmarried teenage girls pushing prams. As one pupil at a local girls’ school remarked: “Our class is soon going to need a nursery beside it.”

People had moved from a culture of sexual denial, where celibacy was revered, to one of confused hedonism, with young women having unprotected sex and getting pregnant as a result.

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