Last year, my grandmother sent me an article from the magazine Pacific Standard entitled, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?” The article was written by a mother who was not afraid to explain the pleasure involved in sexual activities to her incredibly curious preschooler. She tells the story of her son asking her what “accidentally pregnant” meant. She proceeded to explain that people don’t just have sex in order to become pregnant, and most people have sex because it feels good. With this, her son was quite confused. This parent-child dialogue is an important preparatory step for future conversations about sexuality that many parents neglect to have with their children out of discomfort or fear of encouraging them to experiment sexually (Dreger, 2014). The article had me seriously examining my own sexuality education and what kinds of messages were told to us about pleasure within sexuality. What did I come up with? Absolutely nothing.
It seems that there is a major discrepancy between what happens amongst people in the bedroom (car, kitchen, park, etc.) and what parents want their kids to know about sexuality and the reasons for it. Research has found when sexuality education is coupled with education about pleasure, young people are more likely to engage in safer sex and make healthier decisions in their sexual relationships (deFur, 2012).
Sexual pleasure can be defined as “the positive physical and subjective sensation and emotional experience resulting from stimulation of the genitals, breasts, and other erogenous zones (Garza-Mercer, 2006).” Sexual pleasure, whether experienced alone or with one (or more than one) partner, is an incredibly important facet of sexuality. It’s the reason that many individuals engage in sexual acts. Which brings me to my focal point: if a majority of us are having sex for pleasure, and there is evidence to back the fact that incorporating pleasure into sexuality education curriculum leads to healthier, more communicative sexual relationships, why is it not being taught in all comprehensive sexuality education?
The standard in much of the sexuality education throughout the United States is to focus on an abstinence-only, abstinence- based, or “disaster prevention” sexuality curriculum. While learning about anatomy, disease and pregnancy prevention are crucial components of sexuality education, research has shown that young people are more interested in learning more about sexual pleasure. Including discussion on pleasure rather than focusing solely on scare tactics, can provide young people with the agency necessary to make healthy decisions regarding their sexuality (deFur, 2012). Young people want to learn about information that readily pertains to them and their current situations and experiences. For example, most young people’s prime motivation for sexual activity is to gain pleasure. “Young people will tune out sexuality educators if their real concerns are left in the shadows (Abraham, 2011).”
Which acts provide pleasure may differ from one individual to the next, however, by getting the conversation started in a more neutral setting, like the classroom, individuals may feel more at ease with a partner when discussing what they find pleasurable. By starting the discussion of pleasure in an educational setting, an environment is created in which less sexual shame will occur. If an educational framework that discourages sexual activity is used, young people may live with guilt and shame each time they engage in and find pleasure in sexual activities (deFur, 2012). Therefore, a sense of agency needs to be created within young people, providing them with the confidence to engage in healthy communication about sexual interests. Similarly, several studies have found that young people wished they had learned more on the logistics of sex during their education, regretting many sexual experiences lacking in pleasure (Allen, 2012).
So, how can pleasure effectively be incorporated into the conversation, one might ask. First and foremost, it is crucial for the instructor to feel at ease when discussing pleasure with one’s students. Fortunately, Kirsten deFur created a lesson plan specifically for this purpose. The main tenets of her lesson include:
-Learning to create a sex-positive environment in which pleasure can be openly discussed
-Assessing potential challenges in teaching about sexual pleasure
-Identifying messages received about sexual pleasure
Prior to creating this lesson plan for educators, deFur constructed The Pleasure Framework for Sexuality Education (2012). Though her framework is not accompanied by specific curricula, she outlines the principles of this program and what it aims to achieve. In creating this framework, deFur intended it to be used in addition to the sexuality education program already in place (2012). In this sense, it is a flexible and adaptable framework to any method of sexuality education. deFur suggests that educators should create goals and learning objectives that will result in positive outcomes. This will move the conversation in a more positive direction, rather than focusing on worst-case scenarios (deFur, 2012).
Because sexual pleasure may be a difficult topic for many young people, or people of any age, to discuss, it is essential for a safe space to be created. In order for positive, effective communication to occur on a potentially difficult and uncomfortable topic, students must feel that their conversations will not leave the class room and that they are free from judgment (deFur, 2012).
Additionally, it is absolutely crucial for the educator to “model a positive approach to sexuality that affirms sexual pleasure (deFur, 2012).” This will enhance the benefits that the students will gain from pleasure education. If the instructor is uncomfortable discussing the material, it will be apparent to the students who will, in-turn, be made uncomfortable by the material.
According to Joe Fay in the SEICUS Report, we can begin to lay the foundations for future discussion of pleasure from a young age; by implementing alternative physical education such as yoga, dance and meditation, educators can teach children to appreciate and enjoy their bodies (Fay, 2002). We need to rework the sexuality education system, incorporating ideas of self-love and appreciation from infancy on. Through the understanding that pleasure can be experienced throughout the body, not just in the genitals, students can begin to grasp the idea that pleasure need not always originate from penetrative sex (Fay, 2002).
Fay also suggests having students work together on a “Sexual Behavior Continuum” (Fay, 2002) in which they will come up with their own sexual terms to be placed on said continuum. They will then place themselves on this continuum and discuss where they feel students of their age belong on the it. Through this activity, students will gain an understanding of the various activities besides penetrative sex that can provide pleasure. This activity also touches on the importance of being emotionally and physically ready to engage in sexual activities providing the foundation for safe and pleasurable sexual experiences (Fay, 2002).
In discussing pleasure with young people, there are barriers that exist and will potentially create difficulties for educators. When examining discussions on pleasure the focus needs to remain on the incredible benefits of teaching young people about sexual pleasure. When we incorporate pleasure into the conversation, educators are helping young people to facilitate sexual situations “free of coercion, discrimination and violence (WHO, 2011).”
Abraham, L. (2011). Teaching good sex. New York Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/magazi ne/teaching-good-sex.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Allen, L. (2012). Pleasure’s perils: critically reflecting on pleasure’s inclusion in sexuality education. Sexualities, 15(3/4), 455–47. doi: 10.1177/1363460712439654
deFur, K. (2012). Getting to the good stuff: Adopting a pleasure framework for sexuality education. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 7, 146–159. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15546128.2012.680864
deFur, K. (2012). Don’t forget the good stuff!: Incorporating positive messages of sexual pleasure into sexuality education. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 7,160-169. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15546128.2012.681214
Dreger, A. (2014). What if we admitted to children that sex is primarily about pleasure? Pacific Standard. http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/admitted-children-sex-primarily-pleasure-81691
Fay, J. (2002). Teaching teens about sexual pleasure. SEICUS Report, 30(4), 1-7. Retrieved from http://www.umass.edu/wost/ syllabi/fall04/teenspleasure.pdf
Garza-Mercer, F. (2006). The evolution of sexual pleasure. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 18(2/3), 107-124. doi:10.1300/J056v18n02_04
World Health Organization. (2011). Health topics: Sexual health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/topics/sexual_health/en/