Meet Dr Caroline West: the Irish expert in sexuality studies

Dubliner Dr Caroline West is a DCU lecturer and an expert in her field with in-depth knowledge about sexuality studies here in Ireland. Originally from Ballybrack in South Dublin, this is her story and how she came to be one of the country’s few experts in all things to do with sex and sexuality.

Though from Dublin’s Southside, Caroline now lives on the Northside. ‘I guess I get my adventurous side from my dad, who definitely led by example!’ she muses.

As a young person, Caroline found herself volunteering with ALONE, a charity organization in Ireland which was set-up to highlight the issues facing older people living alone, and this is what she says influenced her degree.

Caroline studied social science intending to work with people in the future and following her degree she went in search of work in social care in the UK and Ireland.

‘I’ve worked with adults and children experiencing homelessness, women experiencing domestic violence, the elderly, and many more groups in a variety of roles,’ she tells me. ‘I decided I wanted to go back to college and ended up doing a Higher Diploma in Psychoanalysis.’

While studying for that diploma, Caroline began to look deeper into the topic of sexuality and female sexuality in particular.

‘Psychoanalysis was an early look at mental health, but it was already infused with misogyny, with Freud telling female psychoanalysts they were wrong about female sexuality and female orgasms,’ she explains.

‘This was interesting to me, as I had long been interested in why we were so interested in other people’s sexuality to a point where people would hate others for what they did in the bedroom’.

Caroline tells me that she feels that this interest partly stems from watching TV shows like Eurotrash as a young person, which showed Europeans doing all sorts of unusual and wild things.

‘This showed sex as being fun and silly and a good thing,’ she says. ‘Whereas in Ireland, sex was seen as something to be ashamed of, not be spoken about, and pleasure was not part of any public conversations about sex in Ireland – especially concerning female sexuality. What this led to is a lot of shame, stigma and trauma. When I was doing the HDip, I became aware of DCU launching a masters degree in sexuality studies, and I joined this in the second year’.

Caroline’s PhD looked at the experiences of women working the American sex industry and she interviewed women working at the AVN (film awards presented by the American adult video industry trade magazine) in Vegas.

Unfortunately, the main findings focused on stigma and violence. The actors reported experiencing stigma from potential dating partners, from family, and wider society.  They also stigmatised colleagues who gave the industry a bad name through drugs or reckless behaviour.

‘I chose this industry as it’s the source of the most common porn that people are accessing online, and it’s what most people think of when they think about the porn industry,’ Caroline explains.

Sex work in Ireland however, is quite different to the US as there isn’t a porn industry as such but there are plenty of people working as escorts or now as content creators on sites like OnlyFans.

20200414 151427

Caroline has taught a range of topics including the history of sexuality in Ireland which she says is generally quite disheartening. In it, she covered the recent referendums, sex work, activism, sex shops and the Magdelene Laundries.

Her current module, however, covers sexuality, society (mainly through a queer lens), and topics like the retelling of classic fairy tales like Medusa, a queer history of glitter, artivism and more.

‘I’ve taught about the porn conversations in Ireland, and people sometimes think this just means ‘she’s showing porn to students’, but I encourage students to consider different viewpoints on porn, to critically analyse research and statements in this area, and to look at the power dynamics within these conversations,’ she says.

According to Caroline, one of the main things that need to change when it comes to her studies is the power dynamic in research which she says favours researchers but not the participant. She says that sex workers should be the ones to lead research on sex work.

 ‘The researcher does not face the same risk of being asked invasive questions, or having their story used against them, or taken out of context,’ she explains.

‘If we adopted a more egalitarian approach, the participants could decide on the method of research, the questions asked, and how the results are interpreted. Sex workers who speak up about their experiences are often dismissed about being non-representative, but sex workers are the experts in sex work, and sex work is a very diverse industry, and different across type, location, gender, race, disability, and many more intersections.’

Caroline believes that the people of Ireland are ready to have conversations about sex but that quite often it’s difficult to find calm conversations or conversations that are not influenced by just religion and are beyond a ten-minute slot in the media.

‘Stigma results from fear and ignorance, and both of these are a result of poor sex education, and our insecurities around sex and sexuality,’ Caroline says.

‘So we can reduce stigma by having open conversations and providing resources so that people can inform and empower themselves’. 

IMG 20190708 WA0010

Why is it that we often joke about it? Well, Caroline says that it this often stems from an insecurity within ourselves and laughter releases that nervousness and tension.

‘We still have the hangover of shame when it comes to sex, as historically we have viewed sex in very negative terms in Ireland. We need a new reality where sex is viewed as a fun thing to do, once it is consensual. This helps us in so many ways, such as having the confidence to ask for what we want in bed, or being able to explain to a GP if something feels wrong.’

Caroline believes that we also must listen to what students have been repeatedly saying both in the media and academic studies about the standard of sex education in Ireland as it’s also not inclusive of LGBT+ identities.

‘The key components for a happy sex life are consent, kindness, pleasure, and respect, and these need to be the building blocks of sex education, rather than shame, judgement and stigma. It might be uncomfortable to acknowledge, but young people are watching porn, and need a safe space to talk about it. This is why porn literacy is important- this busts the myths about the type of sex we see in porn.’

‘I think all genders find it easier to talk more openly about the performative aspects of sex like ‘oh yeah I banged three people last week’, but we are more hesitant to talk about authentic experiences of sex or the emotional side of sex,’ she says.

rsz dsc 0144

‘We are also a bit slower to talk about when sex goes wrong, and seek out help. This is sad as it means people can suffer in silence, or be willing to follow some dodgy advice that can make the issue worse.’

When it comes to pornography and information about sex online, Caroline says that the results can be beneficial but also not so much for online users.

For example, it can, she says, be used positively by sex educators to talk about sex and healthy relationships. But there are things that one must be aware of while browsing through the reams of pornography too.

‘Porn is good in one sense, in that it can show different bodies and sex acts that we might like to fantasise about, and it can provide an outlet for sexual desire,’ she explains. ‘On the other hand, we don’t seem to have open, calm conversations about porn, and we seem to think the only kind of porn out there is on Pornhub. There’s so much more to porn that one website!’

‘A lot of mainstream porn misses things such as oral sex on women and cuts out the consent and negotiations that go on behind the scenes. This is why we need porn literacy. Porn is a fantasy product for adults, but it’s not always a realistic depiction of real-world sex (sometimes, that’s the point!). But porn isn’t meant to be sex education, this is why we need to have comprehensive sex education so that people don’t look to porn for it.’

rsz 1dsc 2900
Dublin Storyslam 15 January 2019 “Tribes”

Caroline’s students from DCU go into many different careers following their degrees and she has kept in touch with a few like Robbie Lawlor who is doing amazing work as an HIV advocate and Sarah Sproule who is a sex educator.

Some students might not focus on sexuality but might be more conscious of incorporating a gender/sexuality analysis into their research, such as being more questioning of statistics that may not be inclusive, either in demographics or language used. 

Caroline’s new podcast Glow West has recently launched which she says is a very exciting thing and is part of a wider initiative of her sex education for adults. Caroline is hoping to host workshops, talks, art events, tours and says that now is the right time to get started.

Topics range from masturbation, STIs,  sex work, periods, trans activism, sex for older people, sex after bereavement, lingerie, and so much more.

‘I know lots of people are setting up podcasts now, but I swear it was planned for a while!’ she jokes. You can find out more about Glow West here.

Categories:
I'm a freelance content creator and a journalist who has a strong desire to do as much as possible in the time I've got left on this planet. I got a taste for storytelling when I interned in Storyful many moons ago and since then have worked for places like WorldIrish (now Irish Central), Her.ie and Lonely Planet. I am constantly curious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *