During lockdown, there have been massive reckonings, revolutions and reawakenings around sex and sexual health in Ireland. Artists, activists, organisations, students and sex workers speak with Oisin Kenny about adapting to a pandemic and what this means going forward.
Sex is Community
The #OpentheGMHSNow campaign presented a rallying call for the LGBTQ+ community to address their concerns and outrage over a glaring lack of specialised sexual health services in Ireland. MPOWER Programme Manager Adam Shanley expressed, “We saw a big increase in gbMSM seeking information and support for access to sexual health services. People were way more anxious and frustrated because of the lack of services, especially the closure of the GMHS.”
Although data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) shows a 25.5 percent drop in all STIs and HIV infections in 2020, these findings have been contested as portraying an inaccurate picture of sexual health in Ireland based on the pandemic affecting testing services. As Senior Health Promotion officer at The Sexual Health Centre Cork, Phil Corcoran, said, “It can be difficult for people to engage around their sexual health, people can always fear judgement. I think Covid regulations might have added another layer of fear of judgement to that.”
PozVibe podcast co-host and HIV activist, Robbie Lawlor, added that, “STIs, like HIV, can go unnoticed for years, so there are likely people who have HIV prior to Covid-19 affecting access to sexual health services, but never got access to a test. It is vitally important that all people living with HIV know their status and that they start medication as soon as they feel ready to keep themselves healthy.”
The Sexual Health Centre reported an increase in their counselling services for people living with HIV in Cork, rising from 286 in 2019 to 460 sessions last year. Corcoran stresses that, “Sexual health has many components, [...], it’s about people feeling empowered to have the kind of sex they want to have, and have the skills they need to have conversations around this. It’s important people realise sexual health is not just about being free of STIs.”
ACT UP Dublin member and professor of nursing, John Gilmore, further states, “Sexual health services are essential health services, and Ireland needs significantly enhanced resources and focus. When sexual health services are accessible and appropriate, much stigma around sexually transmitted infections can be diffused.”
In many ways, the pandemic aggravated inequalities, miseducation, and State failures that were already present. Gilmore expressed, “Even before Covid-19, sexual health services in Ireland were wholly inadequate. Many in Ireland had zero access to appropriate sexual health services in terms of testing, treatment, health promotion and support services. Covid-19 exacerbated the issue by closing and severely restricting what sexual health services there were.”
While reopening the GMHS remains a priority, sexual health services must also be developed in rural areas with travel restrictions cutting numerous LGBTQ+ people off from cities. Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Vice President for Equality and Citizenship, Marie Lyons, shared, “The reality is access to services aren’t there, the transport links aren’t there. [...] We need to make sure that’s available across the island, not just in Dublin.”
To broaden access across Ireland, various sexual health services pushed past physical limitations with radically innovative initiatives. Shanley details HIV Ireland’s work in building connections from the ground up, “We saw an increase of migrants living with HIV who would normally return to their home country every six months or so for their appointments and blood work but couldn’t due to travel restrictions. That saw a lot of work going into connecting these folks with services across Ireland.”
Shanley continued to outline HIV Ireland’s introduction of at-home testing-services, which he asserts presents a “way forward for uncomplicated screening for HIV and STIs.” Lawlor also addressed the significance of the pilot programme, “This could revolutionise how we test ourselves for STIs in Ireland.”
As testing services return on site with appointment-only regulations, Coordinator of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), Kate McGrew, cautions, “For sex workers [...], it’s a bit nerve-racking to wonder if we are going to be left with less accessible services.”
Marginalised communities were left to grapple with a more aggressive and isolating form of harmful pre-COVID social issues. To alleviate some of these hardships, SWAI created relief funds, handed out Tesco vouchers, moved their services online, and developed a safer sex work guide with the Sexual Health Centre. In many ways, McGrew summarised the feelings of numerous community driven services: “We basically did what we could.”
Let’s Talk About Vibrators and Gorgons
As people moved to online platforms, they reimagined the means of connecting with their community and themselves. Owner of sex positive toy boutique Sex Siopa, Shawna Scott, notes that she has seen a spike in sales during lockdown, however also shared, “My biggest challenge is dealing with the social media platforms who over the years continue to ramp up efforts to censor and deny the voices of people who work in the sex industry.”
McGrew of SWAI further commented on social media platforms’ policies, “It’s been frustrating that during this time, there has been an escalation of censorship and exclusion of sex workers from payment platforms, but also just a censorship of sex related materials on platforms.”
Accompanying this movement to digital spaces, there emerges a clear need for support structures in navigating sex and sexual health online. Alongside exclusionary social media policies, Shanley stated that video calls are creating new barriers to accessing services for people living in Direct Provision and places where other occupants do not know their status.
Based on a sudden reliance upon virtual spaces to maintain social connections, communities are reckoning with the implications of this. Speaking about life online, artbased group Medusa Collective shared, “Many people have turned to online sex and sexting during lockdown to fulfil their sexual needs.”
In response to over 66,000 intimate and nude images being leaked on Discord during November 2020, artists Marie Pujanes, Selkies, Ciara Makes Things, Weird Sister Supplies, and Design Wright created the Girls Bite Back campaign to support those affected by image based sexual abuse (IBSA) in Ireland. They write, “If one’s nudes are leaked it could cause damage to their personal and professional life. It is important that we as a culture change our attitude on nonconsensual sharing of these images.”
Life with Covid opened up possibilities for raising awareness and solidarity, driving people’s engagement with conversations around sex and sexual health in new directions. The Association of Medical Students Ireland’s (AMSI) National Officer for Sexual Health and Reproduction, including HIV/AIDS, Laura Whitehill, spoke on how pandemic restrictions might have helped people access the ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Symposium, “With the online format and talking about anything that has to do with sex, I think it makes everyone more comfortable because people can just watch, they don’t have to have their camera on or name up, but they can still be listening and engaging.”
Whitehill reflected on the significance in accessing conversations around sex and sexual health for medical students, “We want to know how to be better and more inclusive. It’s going to take more of these discussions and integrating these discussions into care. [...] It trickles, it’s around the hospital, people chat to each other, ‘This is how we should be doing that’ or ‘This is the way we can change this.’”
These Are Our Stories
Life with Covid-19 revolutionised the ways in which people approach sex and sexual health as it opened up intimate expressions and community services beyond physical terms. Distance gave shape to a once-hazy landscape filled with radical conversations, uneasy challenges, and giddy experimentations.
With lockdown restrictions easing, Lyons observed, “I think we are definitely all looking forward to the pubs and The George reopening. But the reality is it’ll take a lot of time, I think we will have to take a step back and actually see how we communicate, because we are so used to communicating online and maybe a lot of us were affected by Covid-19, both physically with our health but also mentally. So how do we support one another?”
When the world came to a standstill, people created movements, from protesting against inaccessible sexual health to intimate explorations of pleasure. Scott remarks, “I think lockdown has really forced people to hold a mirror up to their own sexual wellbeing and take stock of what is working and not working for them. [...] There seems to be a huge hunger here for knowledge that was denied to people by Ireland’s religious school system. Folks want to learn and be given the tools so they can invest in their own sexual pleasure.”
This time of distance has seen a surge of people supporting each other in exploring queer sex and sexual health, such as the PozVibe podcast. Co-host and drag artist Veda spoke on their inspiration for this show, “I wanted to find a way to connect with people who are HIV Positive and also find a way to talk to people who weren’t about U = U, and the reality that, really, the hardest part about being HIV Positive is the mental health implications and the stigma.”
Lawlor shared what PozVibes means to him, “I know that if I heard even one of these podcasts when I was first diagnosed with HIV in 2012, it would have been so transformative. Oftentimes when we hear about HIV in the media, it is about rising HIV rates, closed sexual health services, access to PrEP. [...] Our mission is to create a HIV shame-free Ireland and we aim to do this one conversation, one story, one KiKi at a time.”
As shown by the PozVibe podcast and the Medusa Collective, art will be instrumental in navigating these changing conversations around sex and sexual health. Artist Brian Teeling, who designed the ‘End the Gay Blood Ban’ campaign during lockdown, shared, “We only need to look to the recent past to see how art was informed by, and created around a major global pandemic. The work of Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Félix González-Torres is reflective of the HIV/AIDS crisis and how art had a prominent role to play in sexual health activism. Reflecting on the past and embracing the present will inspire our future.”
To further help understand these changes, Shanley added, “Throughout June we will be asking gbMSM across Ireland to complete the EMERGE survey so that we can get a better understanding about how Covid-19 and the related government restrictions have impacted our sexual health and wellbeing. This will help us to develop new initiatives and responses so that we can better enjoy our sex lives as we emerge from Covid.”
Across this year and a half, the LGBTQ+ community mourned the passing of pioneering AIDS activist Larry Kramer, renowned playwright Terrence McNally, educator Fr Michael Kelly, advocate for women living with HIV Deloris Dockrey, “Force of joy” Elizabeth Owens, and so many more. Their anger, power and passion will not be forgotten as queer sex and sexual health are reawakened and reimagined, paving the way for new art, activism, and joy.