Promoting Sexual Health

by Deirdre Seery, CEO, Sexual Health Centre, Cork


The Sexual Health Centre was established in 1987 as a support service for people affected by HIV/AIDS. We have greatly expanded upon our services since the centre’s inception and now provide sexual health promotion, helpline, pregnancy testing, crisis pregnancy and drop in services alongside our HIV support services.

The Sexual Health Centre (SHC) has been through many transformations in response to the challenge of promoting and supporting sexual health in Ireland.

The staff at SHC are hugely resourceful, energetic and committed. It is a pleasure to work in such a creative and stimulating environment where the needs of client groups are at the forefront. Over the past 23 years we have worked in partnership with target groups, policy makers, funders and other civil society organisations to promote sexual health, rights and responsibilities and drugs awareness. It is not a field in which we can always measure the direct results of our actions, given the broadness of the determinants of sexual health. Nevertheless, it is a hugely rewarding area to work in and feedback from clients, many of whom are extremely isolated, is always positive and encouraging.

We at the Sexual Health Centre are inspired by the rate of change in sexual attitudes and behaviours in Ireland and the opportunities to impact on that change. When I commenced working at SHC, condoms were not generally available, the schools sex education programme (Relationships and Sexuality Education) was a mere glimmer in the eye of inspired policy makers, and homosexual relationships were criminalised. We should never lose sight of the pace of change in Ireland, the opportunities before us and our abilities to positively influence policies and attitudes.

There are increasing requests from individuals working with people with intellectual disabilities for information and support for their clients. There are also debates nationally about the rights of people with intellectual disability to have sexual relationships, with the Law Reform Commission review of Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act of 1993. This examines issues such as consent to sexual relationships, the protection of vulnerable adults and the need for sex education. The review argues that ‘the lack of knowledge in this area by people who have a “mental impairment” arguably exposes them to increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation.’

The Sexual Health Centres believes that sexuality is an integral part of everyone and that everyone has the right to feel confident, assertive and safe to express their sexuality. Sexuality is a basic need and aspect of being human that cannot be separated from other aspects of life. We also believe that being listened to in confidence and accepted without prejudice can alleviate feelings of shame, blame and isolation. The SHC values the rights of all people to dignity and respect and strives to provide person centred, non-judgemental, confidential and quality services at all times.

The people referred to SHC by agencies in the field of intellectual disability often equate their sexual feelings with guilt and shame. We believe that a quality sexuality and relationship program can support people with intellectual disabilities to express their sexuality, lessen the frequency of inappropriate sexual behaviours and provide information about how to access services to support their needs. It is important that people with an intellectual disability have access to programs that can give them an understanding of their sexuality and appropriate ways of expressing it. It is also important that family members and staff working with people with intellectual disabilities are provided with training in this area so that they can participate in providing a supportive framework.

So, what does the SHC offer? Often the first point of contact for people in need of support or advice is the Telephone Helpline where people can talk to trained staff. The Telephone Helpline also acts as a referral to other services, where appropriate. Clients can also call into the centre, either to make an appointment or to access services immediately. (It is usually advised to make an appointment if a client wishes to see a counsellor.)

The counselling and support service offers support to people with HIV, unwanted pregnancies and it provides free pregnancy testing and advice on contraception. At times people with intellectual disabilities need to discuss their personal issues relating to sexuality and this counselling service is available free of charge.

The Health Promotion team at the Sexual Health Centre deliver skills-based workshops to schools, youth and community groups, parents and professionals in the Cork area. We have been delivering training programmes since 1987 and our workshops are accessible, comprehensive and based on enhancing positive sexual health for all. We allow young people to discuss in a format that allows them to be comfortable in the group and with the topics. Our programs are easily amended to suit all levels of literacy.

Statistical information shows us that sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies in the general population are increasing. However, many people still fear that talking to young people about sex will encourage them to experiment sexually. In fact the opposite is true. Research indicates that good quality sex education helps young people start their sex lives later and experience less regret in regard to their sexual behaviour.

HIV Support is a service for clients who are HIV positive and for their significant others. It is also for those who have concerns or require information about HIV. Clients can access counselling, one-to-one and group support. Complementary therapies such as massage and Reiki are also available. People with HIV may also avail of peer education training, so that they can act as supports and educators in their own communities.

Like those with intellectual disabilities, people with HIV often face stigma and discrimination and can feel very isolated. They may also have a range of other problems which make it difficult for them to cope with their HIV diagnosis or treatments. The HIV support services at the SHC respond to the needs of each individual. It has been shown in various studies that such supports are vital in helping people to live healthy lives.

Peer Education at the SHC is about young people receiving training and support in order that they can acquire knowledge and information on sexual health and drugs and, in turn, pass that information on appropriately to their peers in informal and formal settings. self-esteem building, self-expression and behaviour change are central themes of training and the follow on work.

Peers listen so much to each other, so it makes sense to make the content of what they hear from each other as accurate and helpful as possible. Through interaction with their peers the peer educators can model positive, safer behaviours. Peer Education can also help the peer educators themselves. They learn new skills and gain knowledge and confidence. All Health Promotion programs are easily adaptable to suit all ability and literacy levels.

If you are interested in any of our services or need any further information, please telephone us on 021.4276676, or email us at You can also visit our website at

Deirdre Seery has been the CEO of the Sexual Health Centre for the past 20 years. Before that she was involved with training, community development and research. She is involved at local, regional, national and European levels in the field of HIV and sexual health.


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