The voicemail recording on sex therapist Margaret Dunne’s phone gives a poignant insight into the state of Ireland’s sexual affairs.
In a polite, soft tone, she says: “I am now fully booked. I will not be seeing any new clients before Christmas.” She adds that couples eager to seek her counsel can add their names to her waiting list.
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It is three months long.
Margaret could work seven days a week, taking three times the amount of couples she currently sees and still not meet the demand.
The surge is, in part, due to Ireland’s more relaxed attitudes towards sex. But it’s also a sign of the pressures and lack of intimacy in modern life – porn and technology are regularly pinpointed as causes of upset.
“I have heard of situations where couples have been in the throes of sex, full blown, he’s thrusting away and then a message comes in on his phone and he stops to check it. And I haven’t heard that once. I have heard it a few times,” says Margaret.
But the scourge of technology typically takes hold in a much more subtle way.
“When a couple are not talking all night and one of them is on Facebook and the other is on the laptop or watching TV, and they’re sitting on two opposite sofas, and then they think, ‘OK, come on, we’ll go up now and have a s**g,’ – that causes an underlying discontent, long term.
“Sex begins first thing in the morning,” she stresses. “And by that I mean being nice and attentive to your partner before you leave for work, coming home and perhaps touching them tenderly as you pass them in the kitchen. Foreplay begins long before you ever step foot into the bedroom.”
Her clients range in age from 19 to 71, and have brought every scenario to her door.
“There was a man in a very high-powered job, where he commanded a lot of respect, but in the bedroom he wanted the complete opposite. He wanted to get down on all fours and become a little puppy. Barking, and so forth. He needed an outlet that would allow himself to be in a submissive role and someone else [be] more dominant.”
Margaret is keen to point out that sexual thoughts, desires and fantasies come in many hues: “I’ve heard it all… I am beyond shockable.”
And although experiences like that of the high-powered businessman are more infrequent, there are common trends she has noted in recent years.
For a start: “Outsourcing sex is becoming more common.” She explains: “One scenario I come across a lot is that women in relationships state candidly that they are more than happy for their male partners to get their sexual release by going for massages with ‘happy endings’ or by using sex workers, or by having affairs. They say this quite openly and do not have a problem with it, as it just takes the pressure off them, as they see it. I have often found that there are no clearly defined boundaries as to what their male partners are allowed to do. The understanding seems to often be that as long as their reputations are not affected, there is no problem. Sometimes, they do not even demand that their male partners use protection while having sex in these circumstances, as it is quite clear that they will not be sexual themselves with their male partners. Sex has become a duty, and they are happy to see it outsourced. This is more common than you might think.”
A second common scenario is somewhat sadder.
In a world awash with more opportunities than ever to meet people and have sex, she says: “Men, and sometimes women, are capable of being sexual but are at a complete loss as to how to achieve or how to experience intimacy.
“I know this sounds like a cliche and trite but it is common now to work with clients who have been very sexually active, with many partners, but who not only have never experienced intimacy, but don’t know how to go about being open to intimacy. They may never have had an intimate moment with anybody. This is increasingly happening to women as well as men.”
Allied to this, she says: “There is the complication that women’s own needs are not being met as there is a big emphasis in porn on the pleasuring of the man. Because both men and women now view a lot of porn, the sex follows a similar routine and women often act in ways that might not meet their own needs. These include gymnastic positions and fake orgasms. The difficulty is that, as you know, female orgasm is triggered by a combination of intimacy – feeling close and connected to the sex partner; and clitoral stimulation – as only 30pc of women approximately orgasm through penetrative intercourse. So sadly, in this age of female sexual emancipation, women’s sexual fulfilment may not be making the same strides.”
She says: “Sex has become a performance which causes further problems and reduces the enjoyment and fun and intimacy. I come across many, many sexually very active, yet very unhappy, clients.”
When her job comes up in conversation, there are mixed reactions, but it often leads to awkward encounters where strangers share the most intimate details of their sex lives.
For Margaret, she is unperturbed, but she has to politely remind them: “I’m off duty.” Otherwise she would never get a moment’s peace.
She has also been forced to state on her website: ”I do not physically touch people,” given the misconceptions that are out there.
Back in her therapy room, she says Erectile Dysfunction (ED) is becoming more prevalent among young men who are reliant on porn.
“Pornography is so available now, they need more and more stimulation to get them to the same level of arousal, and it’s very hard for any partner to mirror that [level of stimulation] in the bedroom so this reliance can then lead to difficulties.”
The speed of hook-up culture also plays a role in sexual dysfunction: “Years ago, because contraception wasn’t freely available, sex was kind of forbidden fruit. Couples could do everything else except have sex. So a guy might whisper something in her ear and she got really turned on or she would put her hand on his knee and he would get all worked up.
“It all happened very slowly, and in my work that’s exactly what we do: we slow everything down. Nowadays, people expect to go from zero to 100 with very little in between.”
Another trend that’s so pervasive, it propelled her to work in her field in the first place, is sexual problems when going through the fertility process.
As Margaret explains: “When trying to get pregnant, the woman can become very focused on the window of ovulation, and sex becomes functional, almost like a transaction. She will tell her husband ‘you need to perform now, come home this evening’ and men find that hugely pressurised. They buckle. That pressure of ‘we have to do it tonight’ – anyone put under pressure would find it very difficult.” She acknowledges: “There’d be uproar,” if men pressurised women to have sex for any reason.
The worst thing you can do for any sexual problem, she says, is to deny yourself help.
“Sex therapy takes a lot of courage to embark on and a lot of people will do anything to avoid it. For example, rather than deal with the problem and work through it to a solution, they will go other routes. They will undergo fertility treatment, which can cost thousands of euros and is hugely invasive on both, but especially on women, when the issue might be vaginismus or erectile dysfunction or ejaculation issues. Men will very often take pills which might temporarily provide a solution, but fail long term.”
Men and women can spend many really unhappy years before finally coming to realise that they could benefit from some therapy. The irony, she says, is that “once they start, progress is usually quite rapid”.
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