- 16 May 19
In Ireland, women’s sexuality really was repressed. But, from Madonna to Janelle Monáe, a process of empowerment has been taking place that will surely see Irish women writing their own sexually-charged songs. By Siobhán Shiels
Yesterday I was asked if I had any thoughts on ‘sexy songs’ to contribute to Hot Press. My response? “Sexy songs? I’m a repressed Irish woman: sure what would I know about that?” I’m an independent musician in my thirties. I’m becoming more confident in myself and my creativity as I grow – yet, to be honest about it, I’ve never explored my sexuality through my music.
I’ve scoured my psychological landscape, covered social justice and political movements, and examined my relationships – but I’ve never dared talk about sex. Why?
I grew up in an Ireland in which going to ‘Mass’ was mandatory. I was taught in an all-girls Catholic primary school, where I received my only scholastic sex education, with a video narrated by a middle-aged, softly spoken, Angela sitting at a desk surrounded by creepy dolls, whose opening words were: “Everything is based on love and the person who loves you most of all is God.”
Madonna Had Agency
I remember being extremely uncomfortable, sniggers coming from across the room, no one knowing where to look. Meanwhile, at home, I was revelling in Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, singing along to ‘Express Yourself’, ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘Papa Don’t Preach’. These songs were giving voice to my confusion of Catholic guilt and sexual desires. I didn’t know how to process all these emotions and feelings, but I could belt out the lyrics of ‘Vogue’:
“Grace Kelly; Harlow, Jean/
Picture of a beauty queen/
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire/
Ginger Rogers, dance on air/
They had style, they had grace/
Rita Hayworth gave good face/
Lauren, Katherine, Lana too/
Bette Davis, we love you/
Ladies with an attitude/
Fellas that were in the mood/
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it/
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it/
Vogue’ posing by my bedroom mirror.”
This ‘Sex Education For Girls’ video distorted our relationship with sex. Through Catholicism, all I heard about sex was chastity and shame. We didn’t celebrate our bodies. We learned to cover them up. I developed earlier than my classmates in the breast department. Ashamed of my blooming sexuality, I never held my chest high. I went through my teens wanting ever so much to be adored by the opposite sex, but feeling ashamed for wanting so. When puberty was peaking, Madonna released Erotica. She was showing me that we could have desires: women could enjoy sex and not be labelled as a slut or tramp.
The video blew my mind: women looking sexy in a way that was different. It was erotic and powerful: it wasn’t made for men to leer, it was to inspire. She had agency, she was in control and loving the exploration. My teen attempt at living this for myself was short skirts and belly tops which were thrown out, or even thrown in the fire, by my mother, as she – most probably – feared for my safety. Another shameful act of expression thwarted.
Irish women have always tread a fine line between empowerment and being labelled a tramp. So I found solace in grunge, where no sex appeal or expression of one’s body is expected or sought.
Today I see a new Ireland emerging. Through years of campaigning, Ireland has listened to our wonderfully varied voices. Gay marriage is legal and women now have the right to bodily autonomy. These monumental societal changes are so new – and so too are our evolving attitudes to sex. The #MeToo movement has shown us all that this patriarchal society is unjust and the women of Ireland are slowly exploring their power: through their work, their thoughts, their love and their bodies. I’ve a long way to go to find myself sexy – but I’m becoming more open to the idea of recovering my sexual power.
When I was 15, I would never have believed that Shawna Scott’s Sex Síopa would become an Irish icon. Today, teens are able to explore their bodies, emotions and sexuality, without fear of being labelled by an indoctrinated society. Where I had Madonna, this generation have Janelle Monáe, with ‘Pynk’, a sublime celebration of the female body, and specifically our vaginas!
Today’s teens are growing up in a more accepting and curious society than I experienced in the 90’s. I’m hopeful that, with sexual empowerment, Ireland will produce its own Janelle Monáe, Madonna or Prince. And we’ll celebrate them, want to be them and sing along. Unashamedly.
• Siobhán Shiels is Great White Lies. She will be releasing the first single from her debut album next month. Her Twitter handle is @GreatWhiteLies.