Written by Victoria, RSEI Educator | Published November 7th, 2022
There has been a lot of conversation in the media and political sphere about the supposed dangers of medically accurate, age-appropriate, and inclusive sex education. This is why the idea of adding – or even centering – pleasure in our sexual health classes feels even more controversial or challenging for some youth-serving adults. We hope this blog helps folks consider focusing on pleasure in sex ed and the way it can help foster healthy, happy sexual relationships for young people throughout their lives. There are many reasons to champion pleasure-based sex ed, and we are excited to explore them.
For one, focusing on pleasure rather than procreation helps us create a more inclusive conversation around sexual health. It’s also more relatable to young people, who may be experiencing hormonal changes and sexual desire, but might not be experiencing the desire to become a parent.
We also know that if people understand what feels good or what doesn’t feel good, they have a better understanding of their own sexual boundaries. This leads to better communication with partners, and hopefully more consensual and pleasurable interactions.
Most people have sex in the pursuit of pleasure
If we want young folks to pay attention to sexual health classes, they need to relate to the content. If we’re not talking about sex as a pleasurable activity, we are not inviting them to the conversation and we are not being realistic.
Most sexual experiences are had in the pursuit of pleasure, play, or connection, rather than in the pursuit of procreation. This is exemplified by the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education.
“Abstinence-only” (and the rebranded ‘Sexual-Risk Avoidance’) education says “don’t have sex until marriage” and/or “don’t have sex until you’re trying to make a baby” but we know that this type of ‘education’ doesn’t work.
One study examined four different abstinence-only programs. They observed over 2,000 students in these programs and compared their data with a control group of students who were not in these programs. The study found that those who participated in abstinence-only programs had sexual intercourse at the same mean age as the control group. Both groups also had the same average number of sexual partners.
Essentially, abstinence-only programs do nothing to delay sexual initiation. A 2002 survey showed that by age 20, 77% of those surveyed had had “premarital sex.” No matter how many scary genitals with extreme cases of STIs are shown (which is stigmatizing, inaccurate, and not recommended), people are still going to have sex. This is just one example of how the methodology in abstinence-only education is harmful and ineffective.
If we only focused on sex for procreation, then we would have no use for birth control. And yet there are many different forms of birth control that have been created over the years, and likely more to come, because people will always have sex. So, we need to be able to discuss how to properly use condoms and hormonal methods, along with the discussion of abstinence
While not everyone enjoys sexual activity, if we focus on the idea that each person gets to decide what feels good for them, we are encouraging bodily autonomy. We are also encouraging folks to delay sexual activity if it doesn’t feel right for them.
Encourages Good Communication & Consent
Pleasure-centered sex education helps youth work on communication skills and stresses the importance of consent in all interpersonal relationships.
Pleasure means different things to everyone. When we talk about sexual activities, we also talk about masturbation or sex with the self, which is absolutely a pleasure-focused activity. We define masturbation as “touching yourself in a way that feels good to you.” This helps people understand how their body responds and what they may or may not enjoy.
We can also have a real conversation about porn in a pleasure-based curriculum. Porn literacy is not often taught in schools but is essential in the digital age we are living in. We can, and should, talk about the harmful fetishization of Black and brown bodies, the lack of consent shown in pornography, and the lack of protection methods.
We encourage students in our sexual health classes to communicate their boundaries and needs to their partners, along with asking and respecting the other person’s. The trust, respect, and communication that are required for a healthy relationship and pleasurable sex go hand-in-hand.
The communication skills that emerge from this focused sex ed also benefit youth in conversations around prevention – like birth control, STI testing, and how to say no to sexual activity.
Pleasure-based sex ed helps students build skills that will benefit them in all areas of their life – not just sexual relationships. Learning how to identify boundaries and communicate them are essential skills for everyone.
Informs an Inclusive Environment
Effective sex education strives to be inclusive of all gender identities, sexualities, abilities, ages, races, ethnicities, cultures, and bodies because everyone deserves relevant, accessible sex ed. We also know that marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence because oppression is a root cause of sexual violence.
Focusing on pleasure helps inform an inclusive curriculum. We can focus on sex as an act that is enjoyed by folks of different gender identities,sexualities, and abilities, rather than focusing solely on heteronormative, penis and vagina, penetrative sex.
Currently, only ten states “require the discussion of LGBTQ+ identities, and relationships to be inclusive and affirming.” Some states actually have banned the discussion of LGBTQ+ identities and relationships.
We cannot provide medically accurate information to youth if we do not talk about intersex and transgender folx. We can’t provide medically accurate information if we’re not talking about different relationships and types of sex people may or may not be having. If we want to support youth, we need to support all youth.
We also cannot support folks who are disabled if we are not thinking about pleasure-based sex ed. It can be helpful for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities to receive sex-positive education. Conversations about navigating dating apps, advocating with a health care provider, and even communicating about accommodations during sexual activities can be useful. All people deserve to have healthy, enjoyable sex lives if that’s what they choose.
By centering pleasure, we can strive to ensure that we are talking about all the ways sex and relationships may look between or amongst young people. We can talk about all forms of protection – not just external condoms, but internal condoms, dental dams, and finger cots.
For those of us providing sex ed to people over 18, we can also talk about how sex toys, which are safe and made for the body and can be useful in masturbation or in sex with other people. There are sex toys made specifically to support folks with disabilities. There are also trans-affirming and intersex-inclusive sex toys.
If we center pleasure, we can ensure we are providing information that’s helpful to all populations in their pursuit of sexual health and pleasure. We want our youth to feel healthy, empowered, and connected.
Above all, pleasure-based sex ed leads us to sexual liberation.